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Energy Proposal Raises Debate Over Costs, Jobs

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TRAVERSE CITY (AP) – A proposal to require that Michigan utilities steadily boost their use of renewable energy sources over the next dozen years is stirring a whirlwind of competing claims about costs, jobs and spinoff issues that could leave voters dizzy with confusion.

The measure on the Nov. 6 election ballot would require electricity suppliers to generate 25 percent of their power from wind, solar, biomass or hydropower by 2025. If approved, the policy would be added to the state constitution, meaning the legislature couldn’t overturn it.

To supporters, it’s a bold step that would help Michigan keep pace with competing states in clean energy development and create jobs in a sector with big growth potential. Opponents say it would make energy supplies less reliable and sock consumers with higher electric bills.

Coalitions representing business, labor and other interests are sponsoring television ads and cranking out reports with differing conclusions about what the measure would do. Also hotly contested is whether a constitutional amendment is the best way to deal with such a complex matter.

The debate crosses traditionally partisan lines. Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs, which favors the measure, lists dozens of business supporters, including manufacturers and installers of photovoltaic collectors, solar thermal collectors and wind energy systems. Among opponents are the state’s two largest utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, and numerous chambers of commerce. Organized labor is also divided.

Saul Anuzis, former Michigan Republican chairman, is standing alongside green groups such as the Sierra Club in support of the proposal.

“Having a diversified energy policy in Michigan and throughout our country ensures we can move closer and closer to being energy independent,” he said in an open letter to Republicans and conservatives.

But among outspoken foes is Conrad Mallett, a Democrat and former state Supreme Court justice. He agrees with Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette that the issue should be handled by the legislature instead of added to the constitution.

“I’m very disturbed that we’re going to be making substantive energy policy on the fly,” Mallett said.

Lawmakers ordered the state’s energy suppliers four years ago to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. Consumers and DTE have invested in wind farms, which probably will account for most of the green power they produce. They say the existing deadline is achievable, but the 25 percent requirement would require 3,100 more wind turbines spread over an area 17 times larger than the city of Grand Rapids.

In a TV ad, the opposition group Clean Affordable Renewable Energy for Michigan, or CARE, says the policy would force providers to invest $12 billion and customers to pay “thousands of dollars in higher electric bills.”

Ken Sikkema, a political consultant and former state Senate majority leader, acknowledged it was uncertain how high rates would rise. But dividing the utilities’ expected costs among the state’s 4.7 million electric customers would amount to more than $2,500 per ratepayer – and that doesn’t include transmission and maintenance costs, he said.

“It’s a lot more credible to say `thousands’ than to give the voters the impression that their costs would be minimal,” Sikkema said.

Big utilities could reduce the expense of investing in renewable energy infrastructure by purchasing power from smaller companies, as some already do, said James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council.

The ballot proposal bars utilities from boosting rates more than 1 percent a year to meet the renewable standard and says compliance deadlines can be expended if necessary to stay within the rate limit.

Supporters point to reports, including one by the Michigan Public Service Commission, that say renewable energy costs are dropping and are less expensive than power from new coal-burning plants. A study being released next week by the Michigan Environmental Council says the average residential electric bill will rise only about 50 cents a month until 2025 – and could begin falling a couple of years afterward as savings from less reliance on fossil fuels kick in, Clift said.

Debate also swirls around how many jobs the ballot measure would create. An ad sponsored by Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs puts the total at 94,000 and says they “can’t be outsourced.” The figure was derived from a study by Michigan State University economists and includes construction, operation and maintenance jobs, said Mark Fisk, spokesman for the advocacy coalition.

Opponents say the study measured “job years,” a statistic that isn’t necessarily the same as actual jobs. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market organization, contends the proposed amendment would cause a net loss in employment of 10,500.

A report by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan says 29 other states have renewable energy usage standards and that Michigan’s 10 percent requirement is among the “least aggressive.” But if the ballot initiative passes, Michigan will be the only state with renewable energy requirements in its constitution.

Fisk said supporters decided a ballot initiative was the only way to achieve stronger renewable standards because big oil, coal and power companies wield too much influence with state legislators. “This is too important to leave to the politicians in Lansing,” he said.

Opposition spokeswoman Megan Brown said renewable energy is a worthy goal, “but putting this costly proposal in our constitution is not the way to get there.”

© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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