A conversation with Union of Concerned Scientists’ James Gignac
It’s that time of the year for reflection, whether personally or in James Gignac’s case, on the progress Midwest states have made in pursuing clean energy goals.
Gignac is the Senior Midwest Analyst for the Climate & Energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He shared with Planet Detroit some additional thoughts from his recent post about milestones reached by Michigan and its neighbors.
Q: Consumers Energy has a proposed plan that will come up for approval before the Michigan Public Service Commission in 2022. That plan includes burning natural gas. How can the MPSC hold utilities accountable for those proposed actions?
A: The utilities in Michigan, including Consumers Energy, are obligated to display ways to provide the lowest cost, cleanest and reliable energy for their consumers in the state using an Integrated Resource Plan.
While Consumers Energy has some really good features in their pending plan, including phasing out all of the coal plants by 2025 and making large investments in solar, there’s also the question of the role of methane gas, which is sometimes called natural gas.
The question is, what is the role of gas in their future resource plan? What Consumers Energy is trying to do is begin to map out how it will achieve the carbon reduction goals that it as a company has established.
While they’re not proposing to build new gas plants, they’re proposing to acquire existing gas plants. And what we and other advocates are concerned about is the transition away from coal and towards clean energy. Investing in gas resources is risky for customers because those gas plants could very quickly become uneconomic or unneeded.
And so while it’s good that the company is not wanting to build a new gas plant – which most utilities are moving away from, it’s still concerning from an economic perspective and because they still produce carbon emissions and other pollutants.
One of the facilities in particular concerns environmental justice advocates. Testimony submitted by our stakeholder coalition and others, highlights the environmental justice concerns of existing natural gas plants.
Q: What other items should we watch out for in Michigan in 2022 you’d like to highlight?
A: In 2021, especially in Michigan, we saw the increasing interest in demand from communities and customers to have greater control and greater amounts of locally-owned clean energy resources. We’re beginning to move away from the traditional model of utilities providing electricity to customers from faraway power plants.
DTE Energy will be filing an Integrated Resource Plan in the Fall of 2022, which is a year earlier than planned. The upside of that is that we will have a chance to look at DTE’s newest proposals a year earlier than expected. That’s important because we need to be moving quickly, and we need to urge utilities to continue taking rapid steps in a clean energy transition.
So looking ahead to 2022, the DTE Integrated Resource Plan and the important opportunity to review those current plans.
I’m also looking forward to seeing a strong action plan from the Council on Climate Solutions. Last year, Governor Whitmer’s executive order, the Council on Climate Solutions, has been working to develop an action plan to reach the state’s carbon reduction goals. We’ll see that quickly in 2022 as a draft will be released in mid-January, and the Council will then finalize that in February and March.
We’re hopeful that the document will be a strong plan for Michigan and include immediate and near-term steps that can be taken and lay out a long-term action plan for additional policies that can be put in place.
We also will have a Consumers Energy decision on its Integrated Resource Plan. So we’re hopeful that the Public Service Commission will approve the company’s plans to retire its coal plants and pursue its solar expansion. And ideally, either postpone or not approve all of the existing gas plants for acquisitions. So if there’s an opportunity to evaluate those further or ask the company to do some additional analysis to ensure cleaner energy options could be pursued instead of those gas plants.
And in Michigan’s legislature, I think it’s important to continue focusing on and discussing clean energy legislative proposals and to build the demand for taking action at the legislative level.
Q: There was a recent major win for Illinois – anything you want to share about it?
A: The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) was based on building upon and expanding previous legislation, so in 2017, Illinois passed the Future Energy Jobs Act. What advocates started doing immediately after that legislation passed was starting to think about the next set of policies that can be passed in Illinois, while identifying things that needed to be improved or changed from the 2017 legislation.
CEJA was the product of many conversations and discussions amongst a broad set of stakeholders, which led to its passing in 2021.
Centering the needs of lower-income communities and making sure that clean energy investments and benefits are shared amongst all Illinois communities is a key to making them a leading national leader in the equitable pursuit of clean energy and climate action.
Q: What else should Michigan consider in 2022 related to clean energy advocacy and policymaking?
A: I would say that crafting clean energy policies centering people and lower-income, traditionally disadvantaged communities. Doing that is important, but it’s also popular. People want to see equity being a key part of clean energy and climate responses.
So I think our work in 2021 really highlighted that and we have an increasing amount of good examples to draw from, whether it’s Illinois’s efforts or programs in other states that can be applied in Michigan and elsewhere.
Q: What’s next for UCS?
A: We’re looking to follow up on our Let Communities Choose Report in partnership with Soulardarity. In Highland Park, we’re working on analyzing a microgrid for the Parker Village neighborhood in Highland Park. So that would be an additional piece showing the potential for local clean energy.
We partner with many other groups doing great work in Michigan and at the state level, advocating the Council on Climate Solutions and the Michigan Public Service Commission.