There’s a visceral pride associated with people from Michigan. I should know, as I’m one of them. Regardless of where I am in the world, chances are you’ll hear me wax poetic about my home state. For instance, did you know it’s surrounded by one of the largest surface freshwater resources in the world (and 90% of the US freshwater supply)? Or that it has over 3,000 miles of breathtaking coastline? How about the fact that it’s an agricultural powerhouse that grows the most diversity of crops than any other state (aside from California) in the country. It also produces the nicest and most down-to-earth people, with unmatched worth ethics, you’ll ever meet, but maybe I’m biased.
While I haven’t been a resident of Michigan for nearly two decades, I still visit my family there often and care deeply about the well-being and vitality of the state. As a result, I closely follow what’s happening there, particularly in politics and business. So if my vocal enthusiasm for the Mitten (as we affectionately call it), wasn’t already borderline annoying, it certainly will be now. I recently learned that thanks to a combination of political will, industrial innovation, and utility cooperation, it’s on track to become one of the most ambitious states for grid decarbonization. *SWOON.*
The Power of Policy
It’s no secret that policy has played a huge role in the advancement and adoption of clean energy throughout the US, especially since the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) was signed into law last summer. But long before the IRA was passed, Michigan was making its own progressive moves towards climate action.
Before she became the Secretary of Energy in 2021 (where she’s currently leading the DOE's work to advance cutting-edge clean energy technologies), Jennifer Granholm served two terms as Governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011. During this time, amidst an economic downturn, she successfully led efforts to diversify the state’s economy, strengthen its auto industry, preserve the manufacturing sector, and add emerging sectors like clean energy to Michigan’s economic portfolio. As a result, today, one-third of all North American electric vehicle battery production takes place in Michigan, the state is one of the top five states for clean energy patents, and 126,000 Michiganders were employed in the clean energy sector prior to COVID-19. But more on all of that later.
Following in Secretary Granholm’s shoes, current Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer introduced the MI Healthy Climate Plan in 2022. Designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition toward economy-wide carbon neutrality – while also creating thousands more clean energy jobs – the action plan also has a key focus on solutions that support communities disproportionately impacted by the changing climate. This is the type of policy that happens when you actually have the right leadership in place. (Which is why I always tell my friends and family the number one thing you can do to help the planet is to vote. Wisely.)
During the 2022 midterm elections, which saw the highest voter turnout for midterms in the state’s history, Democrats won a trifecta, gaining control of both legislative chambers and the Governor’s mansion. This election essentially paved the way for the policy that is now in place today.
Last spring, Michigan Senate Democrats introduced a sprawling legislative package aimed at achieving many of the energy and climate goals outlined in Governor Whitmer’s climate plan. The law is currently being debated in the state legislature but if passed, it would make Michigan the third Midwestern state with a requirement of 100% carbon-free energy. It would also make Michigan the first state to pass a law that aligns with the Biden Administration’s goal of phasing out fossil-fueled power plants by 2035. *Double swoon.*
It’s very much worth noting, before this legislation was even introduced, Michigan’s utilities had similar goals in mind.
An Energy Evolution
In 2019, Consumers Energy, Michigan’s largest energy provider that provides natural gas and/or electricity to 6.8 million Michigan residents, introduced their Clean Energy Plan. As noted by the company, the plan came as a response to customers who care deeply about how the utility handles issues such as air quality, water management, and greenhouse gas emissions. Among other things, the plan highlights initially included the reduction in carbon emissions from power plants by 90% by 2040. However, in June 2022, a key regulatory decision paved the way for Consumers Energy to stop burning coal to generate electricity by 2025 — 15 years faster than previously planned — making it one of the first utilities in the nation to go coal-free.
Other 2022 updates to the initial Clean Energy Plan included the addition of nearly 8,000 megawatts (MW) of solar power by 2040 ensuring 90% of their capacity comes from clean sources and increased energy storage with a total of 75 MW of energy storage by 2027, achieving 550 MW by 2040. And I’m just scratching the surface here. But most importantly, in my opinion, is that all of Consumer Energy’s efforts are making clean energy more affordable for Michigan residents, helping customers save an estimated $600 million dollars through 2040 compared to the current plan. This is how you get constituent buy-in.
Clearly I’m a huge fan of what Consumers Energy has done on the clean energy front. However, what prompted me to write this article in the first place was when I saw that its direct competitor, DTE Energy (now the largest investor in renewable energy in Michigan), joined the party this summer. In July, DTE announced a historic settlement agreement with nearly two dozen organizations from across Michigan. Developed with the input of DTE’s customers and stakeholders, this 20-year plan includes an $11 billion investment in clean energy construction and the closure of their last remaining coal plants – including a 3,400-megawatt coal plant that’s considered the third-largest climate polluter in the US.
To be honest, before this summer, my familiarity with DTE Energy was limited to its namesake music venue outside of Detroit (appropriately located on Bob Seger Drive), where I spent the late 90s and early 2000s fan-girling over the Dave Matthews Band and Ben Harper. Now here I am fan-girling over DTE and their pledge to develop 15 gigawatts of in-state renewable power by 2042 and expand energy storage to 780 megawatts by 2030 and 1,800 megawatts by 2042. It’s amazing how things change as you get older. And I’m not just talking about the climate (too soon?).
The deeper in the rabbit hole I got while researching this piece, the more it became abundantly clear just how much of that classic Michigan ingenuity I know and love has been employed to make the clean energy transition happen there. Every i has been dotted and every t crossed. One of the biggest hurdles in the energy transition has been resistance from communities who feel as though they’re being left behind. So the fact that DTE, for instance, will provide re-training for employees impacted by the coal plant retirements and will continue to partner with the local communities, who for years have hosted these coal-fired plants, on new economic development opportunities, is exactly what we need to see from more utilities. The solutions put forth by the state’s leadership and its utilities prove to not only be good for the planet, but also for the people of Michigan.
Keeping Jobs in Michigan
Ten years ago, before “climate change” or “renewable energy” were in most people’s vernacular, Secretary Granholm gave a notable TED Talk that posed the question: How do we make more jobs? Her big idea: invest in new alternative energy sources. And that’s exactly what Michigan has done. And as planned, the jobs have followed.
In August 2022, it was announced that Michigan ranked #1 in the nation for energy job growth according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Jobs Report (USEER). From 2020 to 2021, the state added 35,463 energy sector jobs – more than any other state in the nation. And this was before the Inflation Reduction Act infused much-needed funding (and the enthusiasm to match) for renewable energy. A year later, it was reported that Michigan was leading the country in a clean energy jobs boom, creating more than 15,800 jobs in the previous year.The same report outlines how the state has the greatest number of clean energy projects in the country, having secured more than $21 billion in investments.
And things are just getting started. It’s estimated that as a result of the IRA, Michigan is projected to create 167,000 clean energy jobs over the next decade.
From Motor City to Battery City
To many outsiders, Michigan is perhaps most well known as the birthplace of the automobile (thanks, Henry Ford). So it’s no surprise that the auto capital of the world is also leading the charge (pun absolutely intended) for electric vehicle and battery investment. Earlier this year, a report from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that, of the $120 billion of investments in American electric vehicle manufacturing that have been announced in the last eight years, Michigan has secured $16.6 billion of that, creating 16,300 new jobs in the process.
One of my favorite aspects of the IRA is that one of its stipulations ensures the jobs associated with electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing actually stay within the US. It’s not just a victory for EV battery manufacturers, but for my home state’s economy, too.
Before I conclude this long-winded love note to Michigan’s renewable energy revolution (and I promise, I’m getting there), I’d be remiss not to acknowledge something that keeps me up at night (and on Zillow). In addition to Michigan being a shining example of what’s possible to achieve on a state level to address climate change, it is also predicted to be one of the last habitable places in the country based on the predicted impacts of climate change. (Yes, I am that person that often talks to my Michigan relatives and friends about the realities of an eventual climate migration to the Mitten state.)
For now, a year typically passes in between my visits home, and every time I return I can see where progress has been made, from the number of EVs on the roads (yet the potholes somehow remain), to the increase in wind turbines decorating the horizon, and expanses of solar farms sparkling under that 45th-parallel sun. This summer, however, was the first time that wildfire smoke from Canada made it impossible to see across the bay in front of my childhood home. It was a sobering reminder of what’s to come. My only hope is that more states can learn from Michigan’s progress and act, before it’s truly too late.