Fighting Climate Change, one solar array at a time


From staff reports

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel met with a handful of local business owners and nonprofit leaders at the solar array on the corner of M-72 and Bugai Rd in southeastern Leelanau County on Friday, July 7, during the height of Cherry Festival.

Bart Hautala, operations manager at Heritage Sustainable Energy, which manages the five-megawatt solar field, gave Nessel a tour and explained how the panels work both on summer and winter days. He also introduced the attorney general to the sheep who graze under the panels and serve as natural grass mowers. Hautala discussed the viability of renewable energy for local customers and emphasized how more education is needed to convince citizens about the benefits of green energy.

Heritage Sustainable Energy has six solar generating facilities in Michigan, including this one, which added two megawatts of additional output last fall at the location previously occupied by a wind turbine. Heritage signed a contract with Traverse City Light and Power, the city-owned utility, whose goal is to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2040.

Nessel said that renewable energy generators such as this solar array are an important tool to combat man-made climate change, which has affected Michigan in recent years in the form of rainstorms and flooding, heat waves, toxic algal blooms, rapidly fluctuating Lake Michigan water levels and beach erosion, and more ticks and tick-borne diseases. Warmer and shorter winters have also put northern Michigan’s cherished cherry crop at risk, and smoke from Canadian wildfires has polluted the air across the Midwest this spring and summer.

“Climate change is real,” said Nessel. “And if you didn’t believe it before, you ought to start believing it now.”

Under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and a Democratic-led state legislature, Michigan’s climate plan to wean utilities and industry off fossil fuels and coal- and gas-fired power plants is among the most ambitious nationwide. Whitmer’s “MI Healthy Climate” plan would require the state to generate all of its electricity from solar, wind or other carbon-free sources by 2035. The plan would also require a phaseout of coal-fired plants in the state by 2030. According to a story in The New York Times, solar and wind generated only about 11% of the state’s electricity last year.

Industry groups and the big three auto companies oppose the governor’s ambitious clean power legislation, saying that the shift to renewable energy should be voluntary and happen at a slower pace. DTE Energy, Michigan’s largest electric utility and a major political donor, has warned lawmakers that the measures could result in higher electric bills. According to The Times, the utility, which generates more than half of its electricity from coal and 14% from natural gas, has set a goal of achieving 100% clean electricity generation by 2050, 15 years past the 2035 deadline that the new legislation would require.

Nessel, who ran for attorney general on the platform of shutting down the Canadian company Enbridge’s Pipeline 5, which runs on the lakebed under the Straits of Mackinac, is considered an environmental champion by the Great Lakes Business Network and other constituents who met her at the Heritage Sustainable Energy solar array on July 7. Nessel told the Glen Arbor Sun that the Michigan Attorney General’s office has an important role to play in promoting renewable energy and prosecuting polluters.

Her office has the ability to intervene in cases involving utilities, who outline their future energy portfolios through five-year Integrated Resource Plans (IRP), which are ultimately approved or disapproved by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

“We can push for things like shutting down coal plants earlier than (the utilities) otherwise might have intended to,” said Nessel. “What I’ve done since I’ve been in office is to push the utilities to go harder and faster toward carbon neutrality in our state, instead of getting so much energy from fossil fuels. We’ve worked really hard on that front, and I do think it has had an impact.

“We have an IRP coming up for DTE … I think you’ll see (these major companies) moving toward green energy faster than might have otherwise happened.”

Enforcing environmental laws and prosecuting polluters is also the attorney general’s job, said Nessel, who added that Michigan hasn’t had an environmental prosecutor in her office since Jennifer Granholm left office in 2010.

“If the department of the attorney general isn’t prosecuting environmental crimes, who is?” she asked rhetorically. “That’s not something you do in a local prosecutor’s office or at the county level.

“There is such a thing as crimes against the environment. If you poison the water with drops of a toxic chemical and one person gets sick, you can be charged with assault and intent to do great bodily harm. But if you’re a company and you knowingly poison the water source for tens of thousands of people, you don’t get charged with any crime. That doesn’t make any sense.

“I think you need to have aggressive environmental advocacy and you need to have reasons for companies to move toward green energy. Other states are finding ways to do it. Michigan can do the same.”