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Down on Upton: Michigan Energy News Undercuts Rep's Rap

01/08/2011 01:58 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Henry Henderson Natural Resources Defense Council Midwest Program Director

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogI have been struck by the flap over Rep. Fred Upton’s seemingly new take on utilities and climate change. Congressman Upton, a Michigan Republican who is taking over the House energy and commerce committee, is an important figure in the ongoing fight to address climate, so his shift away from clean energy commitments, and apparent embrace of climate change denial, is notable. It is also kind of odd, when you look at what is going on in Michigan.

In a recent Wall Street Journal Op Ed, Upton wrote that a national climate bill would be "an unconstitutional power grab that will kill millions of jobs."

On Fox News he framed his opposition to climate and EPA environmental regulations in these terms: "Before the end of the next decade, our country is going to need 30 to 40 more percent more electricity that we use today." This is simply bizarre given what is actually happening to the American clean energy economy. The Congressman really needs to get back to his home district, because there has been a powerful stream of heartening energy news coming out of the Wolverine State in the new year. And it significantly contradicts his position. The facts in Michigan are: energy efficiency is making huge impacts on lowering electricity demand; renewables are generating a growing percentage of the state’s electricity; and these state programs are creating jobs, which Michiganders desperately need.

Energy Efficiency In 2008, the Michigan Legislature passed a law requiring utilities to help consumers reduce energy use -- things like offering incentives to weatherize homes, change to CFL bulbs or upgrade to more efficient refrigerators and furnaces, which used to be incredible energy hogs. Now, the state is looking back to evaluate the impact. According to the Michigan Public Service Commission, the program has gone gangbusters. Their report shows that efficiency efforts are actually beating expectations, with investor-owned utilities exceeding savings targets by 137%. What does that mean? Well, look at the experience in Lewanee County, where conservation projects in two government buildings alone saved taxpayers nearly $250,000 in gas and electric bills last year.

“We know that the cheapest energy is the energy that is never used,” Michigan Public Service Commission Chairman Orjiakor Isiogu told the Michigan Messenger. “So, it’s good to see that Michigan’s electric and natural gas utilities significantly ramped up their energy optimization programs in 2009, saving their customers money. In addition, utilities are responding to customer demand for improvements by expanding their programs.”

Considering that, not long ago, Michigan led the nation with eight new proposed coal plants, this should be big news. The focus on more efficient use of the energy already being generated in the state underscored the point that an NRDC evaluation of the state’s energy demands also showed -- the plants were not needed. By using energy smarter, the state has literally offset tens of thousands of tons of dangerous pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and mercury, and millions of tons of climate changing CO2 -- not to mention wasting tens of billions of dollars -- by not building the unnecessary facilities.

Renewable Energy
And while those coal plants are now off the books, an increasing amount of Michigan energy is being produced using cleaner sources. The regulators also recently announced that the state is on track to meet a goal of generating 10% of its energy from renewables. Right now, they are at about 4%, up from under 3% in 2007. And a close look at the state’s needs conducted with NRDC and outside consultants shows that there is plenty of opportunity for more good news in this regard. The state’s future electricity demand can be completely addressed by wind, combined heat and power, biomass, and other renewables coupled with additional aggressive energy efficiency programs -- likely saving Michiganders $3 billion in energy costs in the process.

Those energy efficiency projects mean jobs. Jobs weatherizing houses. Jobs installing components to update the grid. Jobs selling energy-efficient appliances. Jobs on the assembly lines manufacturing components for these new technologies. Renewables and a clean energy economy mean the same thing in Michigan, which has benefited from significant stimulus dollars for R&D on battery technologies. Jobs Jobs Jobs!

Honestly, I don’t think there are questions about the science of climate change. But let’s not conflate issues here -- this is about protecting our public health and improving the economy in some of the places hardest hit by the economic downturn. Michigan currently ranks fifth in the nation for premature deaths caused by pollutants associated with coal plants. Whether you agree with the climate science or not, everyone can agree that eliminating the massive toll taken by air and water pollution that comes along with coal plants -- as well as eliminating waste from our energy system -- is unambiguously good. Hopefully, Representative Upton will look at what is actually happening in his state and see that clean energy investments are creating jobs, renewing the economy, helping his constituents, meeting the needs of America for a healthy economy in the 21st Century, all while helping solve the problem of climate change.

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.