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Mich. Voters To Decide Renewable Energy Mandate


There are business effects to some of the more than 170 statewide ballot measures to be decided in next month's elections. In California, voters will determine if labels should be required on genetically-modified food. People in Arkansas will vote whether to increase taxes for highways and bridges. And one measure in Michigan is capturing attention - whether the state constitution should be amended to change how utilities get their electricity.

Here's Rebecca Williams of Michigan Radio.


REBECCA WILLIAMS, BYLINE: It's a sight strange enough to draw a crowd to this port on the western edge of the state, on Lake Michigan's shore.

Workers are slowly inching a 22,000 pound wind turbine blade down from a ship that just arrived from Germany. The blades are heading for a new wind farm in the middle of the state.

Although these wind turbine parts are imported, there are more than 30 companies in Michigan making components for turbines. One of the reasons that industry's growing is a state law that requires Michigan utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from wind, solar and other renewables by 2015. But some people think that doesn't go far enough.

MARK FISK: Michigan currently gets 60 percent of its electricity from coal, 100 percent of that coal is imported from other states.

WILLIAMS: Mark Fisk is the spokesman for Michigan Energy, Michigan Jobs. His group is behind a proposal on next month's ballot that aims to bypass the Legislature. Proposal 3 will ask voters to amend the state constitution... and bump the standard up to 25 percent by the year 2025.

FISK: The big utility companies, the big oil companies and the big energy companies have enormous clout and influence in our state legislature. And our bipartisan coalition made the determination, early on, that the only practical way to expand Michigan's use of renewable energy was to let the people decide.

WILLIAMS: Clean energy groups back the proposal. So does the Michigan Nurses Association, which says the proposal would lead to cleaner air. Organized labor groups are split on the issue. Many chambers of commerce across the state are opposed to it. So are the state's two biggest utilities.


WILLIAMS: Both campaigns have powerful PR firms behind them. And they've been blanketing the airwaves.


WILLIAMS: The campaigns are attacking each other, saying their opponents' claims about jobs and costs are overblown. But the real issue for many is whether energy policy should be placed in the Michigan Constitution.

Megan Brown is the spokeswoman for Clean Affordable Renewable Energy for Michigan. It's the group leading the effort to defeat the measure. She says energy policy needs to be debated by the legislature, not voters.

MEGAN BROWN: We aren't opposed to renewable energy, or to growing renewable energy here in Michigan. But this process isn't the way to get there.

WILLIAMS: This approach is unusual. Glen Andersen is with the National Conference of State Legislatures. He says 29 states require utilities to get some of their electricity from renewable sources. But if Michigan voters approve this measure, it would be the first time a specific energy requirement would be put into a state constitution.

GLEN ANDERSEN: You know, one of the concerns with amending the constitution is the ability of the legislature to change or craft the language if needed.

WILLIAMS: Andersen says recently, there have been efforts to weaken - or repeal - these standards in nine states. So, putting them in a state constitution can safeguard against that. In fact, if Proposal 3 passes in Michigan - and people wanted to change it later - voters would have to approve another constitutional amendment to do so.

For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Williams in Ann Arbor. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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