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Governor Snyder marries energy and environmental policy

28 Nov 2012

Today, Governor Snyder announced his Special Message on Energy and the Environment. True to his nature, he focused on strategic plans and smart decisionmaking with a long term view – something that I agree with.

The Governor focused on three “pillars” relating to energy: (1) reliability; (2) affordability; and (3) environmental protection.  Possibly to the chagrin of  some, he proposed a 2013 legislative dialogue to set goals for energy efficiency and renewable energy, certainly reviving hopes of the people who unsuccessfully  pushed Proposal 3 on the 2012 ballot.  He also bemoaned the lack of a federal energy strategy.

He didn’t discuss every one of the many points of his 19 page message but did talk about the following:

1. expanding the successful Michigan Saves program to help small businesses with energy efficiency;

2. figuring out how to expand development of Michigan’s natural gas resources  (he touted Michigan’s successful fracking practices) and announcing a partnership with UM’s Graham Sustainability Institute to work with industry and environmentalists to ensure that fracking is done safely; and

3. He discussed revamping and strengthening Michigan’s program’s to provide at-risk people maintain utility services.

As to environmental policy, he urged an ecosystem approach and he:

1.  proposed a strategic plan for all of Michigan’s publicly owned lands – building off his blue ribbon parks paneland including a plan for abandoned urban lands and pushed for better methods to aggregate and plan for them;

2. said it was time to resolve the conflict between urban farming and the Right to Farm Act;

3. announced that he was going to co-chair the Great Lakes Governor’s Council and would call a summit to discuss many issues including invasive species (both focusing on prevention and control) – this will likely be a thorny issue particularly in dealing with Illinois on the issue of Asian Carp;

4. asked for a proactive strategy for Michigan’s inland lakes and sustainable water usage; and

5. a surprise to me, he talked about improving recycling programs across the State.

There’s a lot more in there which we will be discussing in the future. But even treating energy and environmental issues as integrally related is a welcome new and dynamic approach.

Sustainability – the new buzz word?

4 Apr 2012

Sustainability seems to be showing up everywhere. Certainly, in the national budget debates, and the arguments over national health care, we hear many arguments about what is and is not sustainable. As a topic, environmental sustainability is certainly rising on the radar screens of corporate America. Companies as varied as Ford, GM, Kimberly-Clark, Alcoa, Dole Food, Boeing, all have appointed corporate sustainability executives and are setting sustainability goals. Dow recently announced a $10 Million grant to the University of Michigan to support research fellows on the topic of sustainability.

There are many reasons for adopting a corporate sustainability mind-set. Certainly, saving money in production costs, disposal costs and energy costs are usually at the forefront. Additionally, execs focus on customer perception and corporate reputation.   What is “sustainable”? Well that depends.  A commonly referred to definition of sustainability comes from the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations from March 20, 1987: “sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”  While there has been a lot of talk about improving the “Triple Bottom Line” of benefits in  ecology, society and traditional profits, the first two are much harder to measure than the third.

Ernst & Young recently released a report on sustainability noting that, while, sustainability as a concept is in its infancy, it is catching on among corporations.  The report notes that, among other things, employees are often a key group in developing and maintaining working sustainability programs. This makes sense as a top-down approach simply won’t work (how many times do you tell your kids to turn off the lights when they leave a room?)

There is some very sophisticated thinking going on in corporate America with companies focusing on their supply chains as well as their customers’ short and long term needs to determine how best to achieve greater sustainability.

Water water everywhere…

14 Mar 2012

I doubt it’s just coincidence that a newly published article (here) in a scientific journal, an ABA Journal cover story (here) and an environmentalist website (here) are all focusing on different aspects of the same issue – climate change’s impact on water levels.  What is an interesting coincidence is that they all come on the heels of what may be the warmest, least winter-like winter around these parts in living memory.

The Climate Change website is projecting dramatic future impacts on the Country’s coastlines as the pace of climate change is expected to increase and sea levels are anticipated to rise more significantly than in the last century (perhaps as much as 5 feet! in the next 90 years).

The ABA Journal article discusses the quandary posed by this projected sea level change to some island nations that may be entirely wiped out by rising sea levels – positing that for the first time, land may simply disappear.  This would pose tremendous challenges to the indigenous populations and perhaps result in the eradication of long-recognized countries (and throwing their underwater resources up for grabs).

The article in the Journal of Climate reports what most of us around here have known for quite some time – that things haven’t been freezing over in the Great Lakes like they used to.  I remember the story of Harry Houdini trapped under the ice in the Detroit River (which seems more likely marketing than truth) but I don’t recall ever seeing the River frozen over.

A study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor, Michigan, investigated ice cover on the Great Lakes from 1973 to 2010.  The scientists found that all of the Great Lakes have had less ice over the past 38-year period ranging between 88% less (Lake Ontario) and 38% (Lake St. Clair). Overall, the total loss for Great Lakes ice cover was 71%.

As ice prevents winter evaporation, it appears that, after a slight rebound in lake levels last year, we may see lower lake levels across the Great Lakes – possibly impairing pleasure boating, fishing and commercial shipping.

What did you see on your spring break? 4,000 wind turbines.

4 Mar 2012

Last month, my family and I took a trip to Palm Desert, California.  As we approached, we were surprised by a sight I was totally unaware of – the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm was developed beginning in the 1980s and is one of three major wind farms in California.  Reportedly, the San Gorgonio Pass is one of the windiest places in Southern California.

This wind farm is located in the San Bernadino Mountains and has more than 4,000 separate wind turbines (4,000!) and provides enough electricity to power Palm Springs and the entire Coachella Valley.  This farm has different types of wind turbine structures which, given its age, I suspect have evolved over time.

Apparently, you can tour the wind farm and while we got some amazing views from the road, I think I will have to put this on my to-do list for next time!

Energy – “keeping up with joneses”

13 Feb 2012

Coming soon to a utility bill near you?

Recently, a friend of mine told me about a program in Palo Alto, where the municipal utility provides them with a document comparing their home’s energy use to that of 100 similarly situated neighbors and then to the 20% most efficient neighbors.

The idea appears to be to use peer pressure to encourage further conservation. There are links to tips and ideas to save electricity, gas and water.

I’m not sure whether this is as effective as a year to year comparison of my own usage would be, and I doubt knowing what a hundred of my neighbors are doing would motivate me to be more efficient, but it is interesting. Would it motivate you?

The best energy dollar is one you never spend. More insulation?

20 Jan 2012

The siding is down for the injection of insulating foam

Many articles that I’ve read say that the best energy dollar is the dollar not spent. Given that the overall trend in energy prices is up, and that our house has some very cold rooms, we thought that it was time to revisit our home’s insulation.

This week, we had USA Insulation add insulation to our attic and inject foam insulation into the walls of our home. Most interesting to me was when I learned that the many recessed lights in the ceiling act like chimneys venting air out of the house – air I had been paying to heat or cool!  The insulators have boxed in those lights, so that has stopped.  We also learned that despite insulation we added 4 years ago, our attic barely met current standards and the walls in our house had little insulation.

USA Insulation told us that we should see roughly a 30% energy savings from this insulation. My daughter has announced that she thinks our home office (which is hot in the summer and glacial in the winter) already seems less cold – and given our recent single digit temperatures, I was pleasantly surprised to agree.

I will be closely reviewing my utility bills, as this was not cheap to do. There are some utility and federal incentives and financing is available, but it’s still a pricey investment.  As we plan to be in the house for 15+ years, I’m hoping to recoup that cost and come out well ahead (I’m hoping for a 4 year or less payback) while saving energy and reducing our carbon footprint as well.

Looking Ahead To 2012.

5 Jan 2012

Wetland Rules at the Federal Level.  The Sacketts bought a $23,000 residential lot in Idaho and filled it in with dirt and rocks in preparation for building a home. The EPA fined the Sacketts claiming that the property is a wetlands that cannot be disturbed without a permit.  Next week, the U.S. Supreme Court will take up the Sacketts’ case, not to redefine wetlands, but to decide whether landowners are entitled to a hearing before a judge when they are confronted by the EPA. The case is being closely watched by developers and environmentalists.

Further, as Arthur has blogged about a number of times, it will be interesting to continue to watch how the federal government interprets the 2006 Rapanos decision regarding federal jurisdiction over wetlands.  Since no single Rapanos opinion garnered a majority of the Justices’ votes, it is unclear which opinion sets forth the controlling test for wetlands jurisdiction and fights and court cases will continue to follow.

EPA Greenhouse Gas Rules vs. Congress.

Last month, the EPA released new rules under the 1990 Clean Air Act which were aimed at coal burning power plants.  More than a dozen electric power companies, municipal power plant operators and states had sought to delay the rules due to, among other things, the over 2 billion dollar price tag.  Last week, a federal appeals court in Washington approved their request.  Republicans claim that the rules would shutter some older, coal-fired power plants and kill jobs.  Obama and the EPA claim that the investments would be far outweighed by the hundreds of billions of dollars in health care savings from cleaner air.  The court is asking that oral arguments take place by April 2012.

Coal Ash – Hazardous Materials?

The EPA is currently considering several options on how to regulate coal ash, from giving it a special status as a hazardous waste to classifying it as a solid waste. The industry has said that even a solid waste classification would prompt the closure of some existing coal ash ponds and landfills, costing jobs and raising energy bills.  Last Halloween, a Wisconsin utility had a section of cliff the size of a football field give way, creating a mudslide that sent equipment and coal ash spilling into Lake Michigan.  I suspect a greater level of pressure on the EPA to characterize coal ash as hazardous or otherwise ramp up regulation of coal ash impoundments in 2012.

Fracking Debate Rages On.  The proliferation of hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, across the U.S. in 2011 sparked protests and debates over its utility and side effects.  Last May, the State of Michigan issued new requirements for the process (Michigan enters the “fracking” fray).  In November 2011, the EPA announced plans to expand federal oversight of fracking fluids after an EPA study revealed that an aquifer in Wyoming, which had seen extensive gas drilling, contained several cancer-causing compounds, and at least one chemical commonly used in fracking fluids.  The fracking debate is sure to rage on in 2012.

Keystone Pipeline.  President Obama and Congress are starting the new year locked in a politically charged dispute over the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,700-mile oil pipeline from Canada to Texas.  Republicans and some unions claim that the pipeline will create thousands of jobs. Environmentalists fear it could lead to an oil spill disaster.  The pre-Christmas agreement between Obama and Congress temporarily extending the payroll tax cut included language forcing Obama to make a speedy decision on whether to allow the building of the pipeline.  The $7 billion pipeline poses a political trap for Obama because it divides his supporters (environmentalists oppose the project while most labor unions support it).

Redevelopment Incentives in Michigan – Trying to Do More with Less.  Last year, the wildly successful MEGA, Brownfield and Historic tax credits were eliminated and replaced with two downsized programs.  This was a major disappointment as these incentives encouraged the redevelopment of blighted and polluted properties in Michigan.  So what will builders, developers and investors turn to in 2012?  Will Ann Arbor’s PACE legislation thrive and become a model for other communities?  Those seeking redevelopment in Michigan will certainly be trying to do more with less in 2012.  Hopefully, the MEDC and municipalities will assist developers and businesses to find creative ways to encourage investment, revitalization, and rehabilitation in the State.