Q&A: In Michigan, conservatives make a case for clean energy

Larry Ward is the executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum.

Larry Ward is the executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum.

Larry Ward, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, says he’s always been fascinated by the idea that “somehow Republicans can’t be in line” with renewable energy.

As a consultant and former political director for the state’s Republican party, Ward is experienced in statewide politics, and is well aware that the issue has become hyper-partisan. But he doesn’t think it should be. After all, he says, energy policy affects everyone who pays an electric bill.

“I’m just always mystified that we as a political party have let it get that bad,” he said.

So in late 2013, Ward launched the MCEF as a way to give Republicans a voice on clean-energy issues — an opportunity for those in the party to speak up on the merits of the issue without being lumped in with (and cast away as) liberals, he said. The group includes some of the state’s most prominent conservative activists.

While the MCEF publicly supports an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that includes natural gas and nuclear alongside renewables, Ward sees the benefits that the state’s 10 percent renewable energy standard has had economically. He supports removing state and utility barriers to entry for solar generation.

Ward is careful to frame the issue with three pillars: jobs and the economy; energy independence; and leaving a positive legacy for future generations. The group is careful to avoid potentially divisive debates about climate change.

As Michigan’s 2008 renewable energy standard expires this year, Ward thinks it would be wise to stay the course in growing the state’s renewable portfolio and efficiency standards as it has over the past eight years. With a Republican-led Legislature and governor’s office, Ward’s group may be a valuable ally among clean-energy supporters as Michigan’s energy policy is considered this year.

“I think renewables and clean forms of energy are the next phase of energy production in this country, so I’m glad to have a group that’s willing to speak up on behalf of it,” he said.

Ward recently sat down with Midwest Energy News to talk about Michigan’s renewable-energy potential.

Midwest Energy News: You’ve talked about the need to bring a conservative voice to energy issues. In Michigan, don’t Republicans have the voice on this issue and others in state politics?

Ward: Looking at the makeup of politics in Michigan, any time a Republican would step out and try something on energy — especially from a renewable or clean side — they felt like they were kind of catering to the left. There is plenty of environmental people that will talk about that, but there wasn’t a group of core conservatives doing it.

Not only that, but the vantage point we take has three main platforms: jobs and the economy; national security or grid security or what we call energy independence; and then natural resources and health, or what we like to call, ‘What is the legacy we are leaving for our children and grandchildren?’ That’s our realm and the world we work within.

How would that translate into policy?

We have done a lot of polling and some economic impact studies on what it means for the state of Michigan if we were to expand energy efficiency or to take the renewable standard we have and just continue on that path. Not to pick a [higher percentage goal] out there, but just say, we’re gaining in renewables by 1.5 percent a year, and if that was the law put in place, what if we just continue down that path?

It would be really nice to continue making progress on the use of more efficiency and renewables and our economic impact studies show the advantage of that. But why pick a number way out there? As the governor always frames it, he’s in office here another four years. Is he going to impose something on someone eight or 10 years from now that maybe is or isn’t realistic?

We can still get markets to improve on what they’re already doing. And how do we do that? By encouraging the use of more clean, renewable energy.

How does natural gas fit into your strategy?

Michigan Conservative Energy Forum uses an all-of-the-above approach. We think the mixture has to be what the market will decide it needs to be.

We also know there needs to be a diversified mix of products. We’ve talked about the transition away from coal, it’s going to happen anyway, EPA is pushing towards it. We have an aging coal fleet in the state of Michigan. Most of our coal-producing plants are 40 to 60 years old. So then the question begs: What comes next, what’s the transition?

We have an abundance of natural gas and natural gas storage in state of Michigan. One thing most people don’t realize is we don’t have coal in Michigan, we bring it here. We don’t produce a lot of natural gas, but we have a huge storage facility.

There are always concerns about where fuel costs will go in the future, which is why we look to the other forms of energy production. We have a strong tie-in to wind, solar, biomass, nuclear, anaerobic digesters, landfill gas. Like I said, we are all-of-the-above, we have not picked anything. It’s a transitional period we’re going through, and if you look at [the state renewable energy law], there were some things that got the short end of the stick.

What has gotten the short end of the stick?

Solar. There are a bunch of rules and laws in place that prohibit just the normal expansion of a product like solar. Wind is great for large-scale energy production, but solar has capability, too.

If we just get some of the rules and restrictions out of the way, that market would take off on its own. You’re starting to see that across states, if you look at net-metering laws.

Some utilities aren’t too keen on the expansion of solar.

They are selling you a product and they want to continue doing that. But at the point where it starts impeding the progress, that’s where we need to step up as a voice and say, “Open these markets a little.”

Could carve-outs, such as requiring a certain percentage of growth in a source, be successful?

I don’t like carve-outs. Sometimes things need what some people have referred to as a jump-start.

We’re seeing that with wind — it has gone through a huge learning curve and now the price of wind is competitive and we can rely on it. Same thing with solar: Sometimes it needs that little bit of added emphasis.

When it comes to carve-outs, I don’t think you should write it into law forever. Let the market decide what’s appropriate.

How have your views changed on the issue of renewable energy since 2008 when the state’s renewable energy law passed?

[From] 2008 until now has been kind of a trial period. If you went back and looked at all of the articles, there was all of this worry about user rates and energy rates going through the roof.

[However,] as I sit in these work groups with all of these stakeholders across the state, I don’t hear anyone complaining about it.

Other states have frozen where they are. Well, that’s not progress, either. I could see doing that if it was really bad for what you had going on, but like I said, no one’s complaining. We got to where we are and it’s actually been pretty healthy.

2 thoughts on “Q&A: In Michigan, conservatives make a case for clean energy

  1. Renewables create jobs, expand the economy, protect our grid security and national security, and protect the health of our people. Great conservative view.

  2. What’s so surprising here? Larry is a free-market guy. If solar wins in a fair race, great.

    The problem is some of us – and you know who you are – don’t want a fair race… you want an imposed winner.

    Now if you really want to accelerate solar, most conservatives would support a carbon tax as long as it repeals/replaces the income tax, i.e.:
    – a $1/gal carbon eqiv carbon tax
    – a 20% VAT or Neal Bortz’s FairTax – either one
    – use above to repleal/replace income tax

    Climate hawks love how eco-friendly this is; conservatives get an end to the income tax.
    Win-Win. Let’s do it