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Power (the electric sort) politics divides GOP in Lansing

Mar 9, 2015

Governor Rick Snyder will announce his new energy strategy for the state very soon and, anticipating that, Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature have rolled out their own plans to ensure affordable, reliable electricity.

It's Just Politics with Zoe Clark and Rick Pluta

Now, if you don’t think politics plays a role in energy policy, then you explain why utilities and energy companies have political action committees to make campaign donations. And the answer is energy plans are rife with politics because, first, it’s a very regulated industry, and, second, there’s a lot of money in those volts.

Now, the debate about what our state and national energy policies should look like certainly pre-dates the Snyder administration and the current Legislature. Right now in Michigan there is a new sense of urgency about dealing with this. And that’s because it’s expected that federal clean air rules will soon force nine Michigan power plants to close.

That’s a particular concern to Snyder, who badly wants to ramp up Michigan’s economic recovery, and that will require an abundant supply of electricity.

Because this is a political campaign, all of this will play out in coming months in legislators' offices, committee rooms, and the halls of the state Capitol

But there are a lot of different opinions on what creates a reliable, affordable energy marketplace. This is not an issue that pits Republican ideas against Democratic ones. Despite what we’re seeing in DC - particularly the standoff over the Keystone Pipeline - the truth is energy politics doesn’t fit neatly into partisan boxes. Which is what we’re seeing in Lansing.

Democrats aren’t monolithic on this, but they are generally on board with a “greener” policy: boosting the state’s renewable energy mandate on existing utilities, but still letting them dominate the Michigan market.

But Republicans, the ones really in charge in Lansing, are who we’re keeping an eye on. Republicans don’t seem to agree on even the broad parameters of a state energy strategy. (But they do seem to agree boosting the renewable mandate should not be part of it. This will be a critical negotiating point if the votes are close when it comes time to pass a law.)

The GOP seems to be breaking down into two separate schools of thought.

One of them is to reduce competition from smaller players, and let utilities apply for permission to build new plants that will probably be coal- or natural gas-fired. Kicking competition to the curb means the utilities won’t risk losing their investment in big power plants.  

That is directly at odds with the other school of thought within the GOP, which is to really open up the marketplace to more competition for electric customers among a wide array of companies that could ship that power across a sprawling nationwide energy grid.

That’s why utilities and competing energy companies are already spending big. Not just campaign donations, but PR firms, and lobbyists with the full-time job of trying to bend things in one direction or the other. There’s already TV advertising in an effort to win over public opinion.

Because this is a political campaign, all of this will play out in coming months in legislators’ offices, committee rooms, and the halls of the state Capitol as policymakers debate and negotiate the best way to get “power to the people.”