Rowe: Government stacks deck against renewable energy

Debra Rowe

Gov. Rick Snyder recently gave an address on energy and, as expected, his approach included market-based solutions, the notion that the market should take care of renewable energy development. As a professor of renewable energy and energy management for more than 30 years, I know this is not the case. As a user of renewable energy for decades, I know first-hand and have taught thousands how to harness this clean, affordable way to power our lives.

In our skewed market structure, the deck is stacked against the renewable energy industry. The government gives large incentives to the fossil fuel industry that exceed what is given to renewable energy, according to the Energy Information Administration. Taxpayers are left holding the bill for the damage to our health and environment when these government-bankrolled fossil fuels are burned. Meanwhile, renewables create more jobs without the costly health impacts of fossil fuel-based pollution.

This year, a huge debate over energy has hit Michigan, and the utilities are supporting false arguments from front groups like Citizens for Michigan’s Energy Future. Making minimal investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy is not enough to keep Michigan afloat. Their intention is to replace our aging coal fleet with natural gas. While natural gas emits less harmful gases than coal, it still belongs on the list for bad, polluting fuels. We should not simply swap one fossil fuel for another, and the governor should mandate this.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the Energy Institute at Stanford University have both said that as much as 80 percent of our energy needs can be met with renewable energy with current technology that will pay for itself and build a healthy economy. Such systems, while paying for themselves, create more jobs than natural gas.

We need to replace our aging coal fleet with clean, reliable and cheap renewable energy as much as possible and fill in with natural gas only where necessary, while paying close care and attention to how we responsibly transition the workers who have depended on this outdated technology for their livelihoods.

It’s also time to regulate our utilities for a cleaner energy economy, as other states have done. Michigan should make it as easy to pay a small monthly bill for clean renewable energy as we do now when we pay a small monthly bill for polluting fossil fuels. As utilities resist making substantial changes to long-term clean energy investments, we should push for community solar projects, green bonds for renewables, streamlined permitting processes and more options to keep renewable energy costs low.

The existing regulations have to be changed so that residents and businesses can own their energy sources and don’t have to pay penalties to the utility companies when what they are doing is actually helping to maintain the grid. Penalties for renewable energy are both immoral and fiscally unsound.

Investment in renewables and efficiency is the way forward, but first we must put a check on fossil-fuel incentives that distort our energy markets and keep Michigan tethered to dirty energy.

Debra Rowe is a senior fellow with the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future and teaches renewable energy and energy management at Oakland Community College.