'Green Tea' Party? Far right Republicans, liberal Democrats aligning on Michigan renewable energy issue
LANSING, MI — Rep. Jeff Irwin is a proud progressive, and Rep. Gary Glenn is widely considered one of the most conservative Republicans in the Michigan legislature. But they're working together on an energy package that would encourage renewable energy in Michigan.
Virtually undiscussed in the House until very recently, net metering — the process of individuals producing their own energy and selling excess back onto the grid — has in some ways dominated the Senate Energy and Technology committee's discussion on energy reform.
Solar advocates say the operative Senate bill would devastate the state's solar industry by changing how net metering customers are reimbursed for power they feed into the grid. Utilities say ratepayers are subsidizing these solar customers and the change is only fair.
Now House bills 4878, 4879, 4880 and 4881, introduced last month, aim to streamline regulations and expand access for residents, businesses or organizations which want to produce their own renewable energy.
The package is also bipartisan, boasting Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, as sponsors along with Irwin and Glenn.
Glenn, a Midland Republican, sponsored a bill in the package that would allow community organizations, businesses and individuals to collaborate on co-op style renewable energy gardens. He's looking at it from an economic standpoint.
"I think the more diverse and more competitive energy supply we have, the more secure and profitable our energy supply would be. And so we end up at the same point as people who are motivated more by environmental concerns," Glenn said.
Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat who campaigned in part on environmental issues and has fought tirelessly for things like land preservation and renewable energy, comes at net metering from a more environmental standpoint.
He thinks the whole question of subsidies is one that we have to drill down on. Solar producers are producing extra energy during the expensive mid-day peak, right when when power companies need it most, he pointed out.
"The price of energy when solar is generating its energy is higher, and that ought to be considered," Irwin said.
His bill in the package aims to make sure that renewable producers are getting a fair price for what they produce. In addition, it opens up the field for more renewable energy producers.
Amy Heart, spokesperson for The Alliance for Solar Choice, said the bipartisan package reflects strong public support for rooftop solar and also a trend the Alliance has seen crop up in several states.
"In Michigan we have seen great support across the aisle and across the political spectrum, but this is true in other states across the country, as well," Heart said.
In Georgia, a group called the "Green Tea Coalition" formed.
Green Tea Party has a certain ring to it, but Michigan Conservative Energy Forum Executive Director Larry Ward said it was sort of a misnomer for what's going on in Michigan.
Ward's group advocates for renewable energy based on jobs and economic grounds. It's definitely not the global warming perspective green groups come from, but on issues like renewable energy or the net metering package, they end up aligning.
"I've always said at the end of the day I think we're advocating for the same thing, but for different reasons," Ward said.
And although Ward's group, and legislators like Glenn, come from deeply-rooted conservative perspectives, they run up against some Republicans who want to make sure utilities and non-solar ratepayers aren't unfairly subsidizing their solar-enabled neighbors.
As the debate over Michigan's entire energy future wages on separately in the House and Senate, it's not clear where the bipartisan package on net metering will land.
Irwin said he was hopeful that House Energy Policy Committee Chairman Rep. Aric Nesbitt, R-Lawton, would see the opportunities that some of the package's Republican co-sponsors envision. Overall, net metering pales in comparison to larger energy issues the legislature is grappling with — like whether to allow competition from alternative energy suppliers and how to tweak renewable portfolio and energy efficiency standards in light of looming federal regulations.
"This is one rather small and interchangeable part in this whole debate," Irwin said.
It hasn't gotten a hearing or picked up steam yet, but for now it's the only bipartisan legislative answer to Senate net metering legislation.