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Big Crowds, Strong Support for Clean Energy at Snyder ForumsPrint

Clean Energy | May 13, 2013 | By Jim Dulzo

Michigan Land Use Institute Executive Director Hans Voss addresses the crowd at the energy forum in Traverse City on April 22. To see his presentation, and others, visit http://youtu.be/EsRZJZiW_6I

Gov. Rick Snyder had a real hit on his hands this winter and early spring.

State officials are still digging out from the avalanche of comments triggered by Snyder’s seven public forums about Michigan’s energy future, which wrapped up three weeks ago.

The forums launched on Valentine's Day in Lansing and visited Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, Bay City, Detroit, and Marquette before ending up in Traverse City on Earth Day, April 22. Organizers said they attracted many people eager to talk about the pros and cons of requiring utilities to use more renewable energy, invest more in efficiency, and allow more people to choose their electricity providers.

“We thought the first forum, in East Lansing, would draw a large crowd, as well as the one in Detroit,” said Cathy Cole, who attended each session as executive advisor to Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman John Quackenbush. “But some of the other ones in outlying areas had large attendance, too—certainly more than we expected.”

In fact, all but two forums attracted full houses—about 1,600 people, all told, or about 220 per forum. Detroit’s forum drew the biggest crowd—320 people. State officials said, overall, 343 people asked to speak at the forums, but although most sessions went into overtime to accommodate those requests, time limitations allowed only 247 to make it to the podium.

The forums were conducted by Quackenbush and Michigan Energy Office Director Steve Bakkal, and dubbed “Readying Michigan to Make Good Energy Decisions.”

A court reporter recorded all spoken comments; those who could not speak were asked to hand in their comments. Officials said all comments, spoken or written, would receive equal consideration—along with those posted directly to the state Web site by other commenters.

Cole said it’s difficult to summarize the comments they heard—other than those about efficiency.

“Pretty much each forum had a wide array of views and topics covered,” she observed. “There were both pro and con on renewables and customer choice with utilities, but not much at all was said against energy efficiency.”

Stephanie Cepak, of East Lansing-based Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications, attended every forum under the banner of the Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs coalition, which is pushing the state to set higher renewables and efficiency requirements. By her count, a clear majority of commenters at each forum endorsed either one or both of those goals.

Now that the forums are over, state officials must summarize the large amount data contained in the 1,066 comments participants submitted—either in person or online—and present it to the governor this fall. Snyder says he will offer comprehensive energy recommendations in December.

Michigan’s current energy mandate requires utilities to provide 10 percent of their power using renewable sources, including wind and solar power. Michigan currently has a $5 billion clean–energy manufacturing and installation sector that employs about 20,000 people, according to MEMJ.

MPSC and Energy Office staff have posted all comments, reports, Power Point presentations and transcripts online, at michigan.gov/energy.

Getting Technical

Cole said MPSC and Energy Office staff now must figure out how to summarize that huge pile of data in ways that Snyder can use.

One big challenge, she said, is deciding how to handle comments that clearly were not responding to the forums’ unusual, challenging format.

The forum’s web pages asked for data responding to close to 100 quite technical questions. The site—and, at the forums, Quackenbush and Bakkal—advised commenters to provide facts or studies to answer the questions, rather than offering opinions about what should be done.

Cole said some community and business leaders invited to make presentations at the opening of each forum were “very tentative about doing that once they saw the long, maybe overwhelming, fact-based, not opinion-based, questions that were asked. There was a feeling among public that they wanted to express their opinions.”

And despite the caveats, that is what many speakers did.

“We’re not sure how we are going to handle all of that,” she said. “It is a work in progress.”

Cole said she does understand why the forums focused on such technical questions, even though some answers were already contained in various MPSC reports.

“In the current Legislature, especially on the energy and technology committees, “many of the folks who passed the 2008 law [which established renewables and efficiency goals and limited utility choice] have moved on,” she explained. “There’s now a new group of legislators who need to come up to speed. They are being pressured to change the 2008 law, but they don’t have the background or the latest updates.

“The MPSC may already have a lot of that data,” she acknowledged, “but we are seeking more information from the outside world to find out if we are really on track or if we are missing something. Is there other data we haven’t been considering?”

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy advisor. Reach him at jimdulzo@mlui.org. MLUI is a member of the Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs coalition.