Renewable energy: Mandate it in the constitution?

Renewable energy proposal in Michigan would enshrine a '25 by 25' mandate in the state constitution. If voters approve the referendum Nov. 6, Michigan would be the first state to include a renewable energy goal in its constitution.

Nikole Hanna/Muskegon Chronicle/AP
A wind turbine tower is unloaded last month at a dock in Muskegon, Mich., which will be delivered to a wind farm in the middle of the state. On Nov. 6, Michigan voters will decide the fate of a proposal to mandate a renewable energy standard in the state constitution. If the mandate passes, wind energy is expected to produce most of the new energy

Michigan is poised to become the first state in the nation to have renewable energy mandated in its constitution.

On Nov. 6, voters will decide the fate of proposal 3, better known as "25 by 25," which would put in their constitution that the state is required to produce a quarter of its electricity from renewable energy by 2025.

Michigan already has a mandate to source 10 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2015, but it's not part of the constitution.  Like many states, it has a renewable energy standard that its legislature adopted.

Supporters of proposal 3 argue that when they tried to extend the mandate through the normal legislative route, utilities blocked them.

"I see this as absolutely important part of the democratic process. It places checks and balances against legislature, which is unwilling to act," Sam Gomberg, an energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Reuters.

Supporters of the measure,  including the Sierra Club and the United Autoworkers union, say the constitutional mandate would create 94,000 jobs, most of them construction jobs. They say the mandate would cost utilities $10.3 billion. The proposal also allows utilities to raise electricity rates to meet the standard, but only by 1 percent per year.

Utilities in the state are funding a campaign, called Clean Affordable renewable Energy for Michigan, to oppose the constitutional mandate. Opponents argue that the plan will cost utilities $12 billion and shrink the number of jobs in Michigan by 1,600 to 1,700 per year over the next 30 years.

Then there's the constitutional issue. Does the push for clean energy, no matter how laudable, belong in a state constitution?

Supporters call it elegant and simple language that offers the state plenty of leeway in meeting the goal, while bringing national attention to Michigan's efforts.

Detractors worry that it restricts the state's options. "If we don't know what the federal government is going to do, do we want to have our hands tied by what we've done with our constitution, rather than making good calls and judgments as time passes?" Rich Snyder, Michigan's Republican governor. told the Flint Journal.

Of the nearly 30 states with renewable mandates, Michigan's is one of the less ambitious. It's halfway to meeting its 2015 goal. There's plenty of room to go further. But the constitutional aspect of the proposal may deter many would-be supporters.

The Detroit Free Press says it "agonized" over whether to support proposal 3. "Almost everything about this plan is admirable except the idea of locking it into the state Constitution," the paper said. In the end, it recommended a "no" vote.

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