Grand Rapids Energy Forum Encourages Governor to Expand Energy Efficiency and Renewables

Yesterday, the second of seven statewide Energy Forums took place in downtown Grand Rapids. The event was led by Michigan Public Service Commision (MPSC) Chairman John D. Quackenbush and Michigan Energy Office Director Steve Bakkal. West Michiganders packed Grand Valley’s Loosemoore Auditorium, eager to help shape Michigan’s energy future. Mayor Heartwell was in attendance, as were many representatives of West Michigan’s business and environmental community.

There was a wide spectrum of positions represented at the forum with near unanimity favoring energy efficiency; a majority of speakers advocating for responsible renewable energy.

Governor Snyder’s Energy & Environment address emphasized the need for an energy future that enhances adaptability, reliability, affordability, and the environment. To help achieve that future, Snyder initiated these forums and a website to collect any questions, information, reports and suggestions on what information is needed to make good energy policy decisions.

Next, Chairman Quackenbush presented on where we stand now, citing data from the latest Michigan Public Service Commission report which found that since PA 295, Michigan has exceeded its annual targets in energy efficiency and natural gas, and is on track to reach 10% renewable energy by 2015.

The question is where to go from here.

Six scheduled presentations provided a plethora of statistics and considerations:

FirstEnergy Solutions advocated for full retail electric competition, which she believes would help bring down costs and improve electric choice. She also introduced the concept of municipal aggregation, which would allow residential and small business customers to pool together through a government entity to attract larger savings from the competitive market.

The West Michigan Director of the League of Conservation Voters, Patty Birkholz, commended the state’s progress but stressed the need to not lose momentum. Birkholz authored the current law when she was a State Senator.

The final segment of the forum was public comments. There were so many that the forum needed to be extended. According to Bakkal, there were 30 requests to comment in Lansing. Grand Rapids had 70. Here are some of the highlights.

Many representatives spoke for companies and organizations involved in home energy efficiency audits and upgrades.

According to Rachel Ball from dwelltech Solutions, the number of audits and upgrades conducted so far only represent the tip of the iceberg. In her assessment, there are still 300,000 homes to test in West Michigan. Additionally, there are too many procedural barriers to home assessments and upgrades. Her recommendation: “Simplify, simplify, simplify.”

Another commenter said that the current structure of incentives and rebates is weak on things that are lasting, such as air flow and sealing. They also stated the importance of home performance labeling.

Kathleen Russell, a home energy auditor, described the problem of inefficient rental properties. Currently, taxpayers fund home heating assistance, much of which goes to renters, whose rental properties tend to be poorly built. More money should be directed toward long term upgrades, rather than short term fixes.

One theme that emerged from comments was the importance of a long term perspective.

In regards to chemicals used during fracking, a commenter said, “common sense tells me that these poisons won’t just disappear…it will be too late to solve the problem, we will once again be left with the results of our own foolishness.”

A representative of the Kent Co. Health Department said, “We recommend all involved to consider and carefully weigh the unintended consequences that can result from policy decisions.”

Another theme was job creation.

Numerous local companies gave testament to the growth they’d achieved under PA 295. As put by a representative of Holland’s Energetx Composites, “you may only see one company here in front of you, but we represent dozens and dozens.”

Eric Justian, the President of West Michigan Job Group said of Michigan, “we are still dependent on one single industry…we need to diversify into responsible and growing industries… and do it in such a way to support as many Michigan businesses as possible.”

WMEAC’s Director of Policy and Community Activism Nick Occhipinti, advocated for continuing progress in energy efficiency and renewable energy. He called for “Michigan to reconceive of buildings and energy infrastructure as new sources of energy to be tapped and mined, similar to oil and gas wells and coal mines.” He also supported the update and extension of Michigan’s 10 percent by 2015 clean energy standard.

Repeating a theme present in other comments, Occhipinti reminded the audience that “Michigan cannot risk falling behind in a clean energy race to the 30 other states that have stronger renewable energy or energy efficiency goals.”

By the end of the forum, the message was loud and clear. Michigan wants an energy policy framework that keeps money local, creates jobs, is cheap and reliable, and doesn’t compromise the health of local communities or the environment.

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