Why Michigan’s Renewable Energy Amendment Failed

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling is proud to repost this article courtesy of Midwest Energy News. Author credit goes to Dan Ferber.

In September, a Lansing, Michigan, based polling firm surveyed the state’s electorate, and found that 55 percent of Michiganders supported Proposal 3, a ballot measure that would have strengthened the state’s modest renewable energy standard by requiring the state’s utilities to obtain 25 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025. At the time, only 34 percent opposed it.

But on Election Day, 62 percent of the state’s voters rejected Proposal 3, stunning renewable energy advocates and forcing them back to the drawing board.

Michigan Proposal 3

A screen capture from an ad by the utility-backed Clean Affordable Renewable Energy for Michigan opposing Proposal 3. (image via Midwest Energy News)

So what happened? And what lessons can be drawn from Proposal 3’s defeat?

Not a defeat for renewable energy

For starters, Michiganders were not rejecting renewable energy.

The state already has a modest renewable energy standard that it passed in 2008. That law, known as Public Act 295, has put the state on track to obtain 10 percent of its energy from wind, solar, biomass and hydroelectric power by 2015.

And if opponents of Proposal 3 really believed that Michiganders wanted more coal-fired power plants and fewer wind turbines, they likely would not have named their opposition group “Clean, Affordable, Renewable Energy for Michigan,” despite the fact that it was created by a public relations firm funded largely by the state’s two largest utilities and their parent companies to oppose an increase in renewable energy.

Nor would CARE for Michigan representatives have told reporters that they favored renewable energy, even as they spent millions to fight the ballot measure. For instance, Megan Brown, spokeswoman for the group, told Midwest Energy News last week that “we’ve said all along that we support renewable energy. The stakeholders in our group, including the two major utilities, have invested heavily in renewable energy projects.”

Did Michiganders simply believe instead that the state was going too far, too fast toward renewable energy? That’s doubtful, too, or they wouldn’t have favored the measure in September. The American Wind Energy Association says exit poll results show only 1 percent of voters who rejected the amendment did so because they were opposed to expanding renewable energy.

According to the poll cited by AWEA, 60 percent of voters opposing the measure say they didn’t want to see their state constitution mandate it. That’s also the argument that CARE for Michigan pushed. “The voters understand that the constitution was not the place for energy policy,” Brown said.

There’s probably something to that argument, given that five of the six ballot initiatives to amend the state’s constitution were “crushed,” according to the Detroit Free Press.

All about the money?

What prompted this abrupt turn in public opinion? The most likely explanation comes down to money—and questionable claims about the ballot measure’s impact. The pro-amendment folks were outspent by a three-to-one margin, and CARE, the utilities’ opposition group, spent that money blanketing the airwaves with ads that sowed fear and confusion about Proposal 3, while making calmer, reasonable-sounding arguments to reporters.

Ads with ominous-sounding voiceovers warned of “California billionaires” seeking to alter Michigan’s constitution to their own ends. It’s true that an out-of-state group, the Green Tech Action Fund, did contribute $1.3 million to the main group promoting Prop 3, a bipartisan coalition of environmentalists, wind energy companies, unions, and religious leaders calledMichigan Energy, Michigan Jobs (the coalition included members of RE-AMP, which also publishes Midwest Energy News).

The ads clearly misled Michiganders, however, when they said that residential customers would pay out the nose on their electric bills if the measure passed.

Midwest Energy News, launched in 2010, is a nonprofit news site dedicated to keeping stakeholders, policymakers, and citizens informed of the important changes taking place as the Midwest shifts from fossil fuels to a clean energy system.