Talking energy and environment with the State's Valerie Brader

Gov. Snyder's message, Ensuring our future: Energy and the environment, was announced in late November to a live audience at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station at Michigan State University and live-streamed to several energy-minded groups across the state. Snyder presented three pillars that will act as guides to the state's energy and environment strategies: affordable energy, reliable energy, and protecting our environment.

The message, which is available online here, got us to thinking about the state of energy in Michigan, and how it impacts the diverse array of stakeholders across our state. For that, we turned to Valerie Brader, the governor's deputy legal council and senior policy advisor, for her thoughts and insight on this message.
What is the take home message for the average Michigan citizen? The small businessperson? The energy industry?
First of all, I think the message very broadly is, we all need to be adaptable and find those 'no regrets decisions.' To know that things we do today, no matter what the future holds, we won't be sorry we did them.

For the basic citizen, the message is so much about energy efficiency. So many Michigan citizens have really taken advantage of these opportunities, and they're seeing the benefit in their own homes, on their energy bills, and how they can be more comfortable for less.  

This follows right up to industry -- so many of our utility companies have been very successful in their energy efficiency programs, exceeding their goals in almost all cases. Expect encouragement for those efforts and help in understanding the important role energy efficiency plays in both Michigan's environment and economy. It's just a great win, and this helps us all broadly as a society because we don't need as many power plants or to burn as many fuels.

On the environmental side, I think the take away is Michigan's environment and quality of life are really linked to the economy. We get a lot of our basic needs met by the environment, and of course we also love recreation and our Great Lakes. The State is going to be very aggressive in continuing to protect these valued resources and in making sure we have a long-term strategy that ensures they continue to enhance our economy, our quality of life, and our ecological systems. 
The Governor emphasizes starting a dialogue among stakeholders to facilitate energy policy progress – where does that start?
There's a kick-off meeting in January that will explain how the process works, following which an opportunity will be made for legislators, citizens and all kinds of people to say "This is what I need to know to make a good decision." It's a process where we learn what information is needed in the decision-making process.

It isn't a process where one advocates for what they think the answer is; it's really a chance for the State to gather the information, to ask people what they need to know to make smart decisions about renewables and efficiency and electricity markets as a whole. Given that, we'll research how much of that information exists, evaluate what we need to learn, and by the end of 2013, have factual reports giving all that data people need to make those good decisions. By 2014 and 2015 people can make decisions based on really good information on all those topics.

(Editor's Note: A timeline of events can be found in Appendix A of the message here.)
How is the State helping to support more programs like Michigan Saves, and BetterBuildings for Michigan?
The Governor was hugely impressed with the work that Michigan Saves, in combination with the BetterBuildings program, has managed to achieve throughout the state. Especially the fact that they brought in private lenders to help those programs be perpetuated and to grow far beyond what any government program could do. So, we're really trying to make sure people have the information they need to take advantage of such programs, encourage that kind of economic gardening and encourage new lenders to get involved and to move beyond just residential to all kinds of commercial enterprises. 
What are some of the more immediate impacts of Snyder's message Michigan citizens will be able to feel?
We are working on the low-income heating issue. Right now our state program really needs both long term funding and a more rational way to help low-income people experiencing energy hardship, so that they can have a chance to stay in their homes and to be self sufficient on energy. This is something we see happening very quickly.  

We're working to create a severance tax along side a Rural Development Fund in the UP. We're really trying to ensure the taxes that UP mines are paying end up as money toward a long term economic success rate for those communities and the kind of infrastructure they need to have to have a good economy.

Lastly, a wonderful program administered by the MEDC has just been announced. If a business is shopping for a place to put their next large energy using business, every utility in the state that is regulated, will give you, within five days, a ballpark quote of what it would cost to put your infrastructure in various places. In the past they haven't been able to get a quick answer or been able to compare sites, now they'll able to get that information within five days, before ever buying a site. This is particularly great if they are looking at a brownfield site or a greenfield site and wondering what the associated costs will be.  
What are some of the ways the State is practicing what it preaches in getting state buildings closer to energy efficiency?
Over the last 10 years, the State has reduced its energy use in buildings by approximately 25 percent. What we'll be doing in the next year is undertaking a benchmarking, where we look at where the state's buildings are, compare them to other states' buildings, and try to figure out where we need to be in setting new goals, what the best practices are (both that we've developed and that others have developed) and really being able to look at our progress in the context of where that puts us, where we should be going, and what should our goals be. It's something we haven't always talked enough about, but it's huge, if you think about it, that in 10 years we've cut our energy usage by almost a quarter. That's a big win. 
What can be done to reconcile challenge between those perhaps clinging to outdated energy practices and the growing trend of customer desire and sentiment for using less harmful methods of energy generation?
I want to hasten to say that in Michigan, we tend to not think of ourselves as innovative as we really are. We have some companies that are really on the cutting edge with many different alternatives. Michigan actually invented natural gas storage; we have companies like Dow that provide a huge range of energy efficiency products; we have contractors that are excellent in making energy efficiency upgrades; we have realtors who specialize in energy efficient homes. Too often in Michigan we get down on ourselves. We should celebrate how innovative we really are.

However, I do think, and you see in the Governor's message, that we're encouraging new legislation that would help people get the kind of basic energy information they need when buying a home. Something that gives them a sense of the energy efficiency level when they're looking at housing options.

For our more vulnerable households, we're trying to get the federal government to help us to be able to incentivize landlords to make the kind of changes that can really make a home a lot more livable and affordable for our low income families. Right now the way the program is structured, we're not allowed to say to a questionable landlord "get your act together." We'd really like to be able to do that because we think that helps both the vulnerable families and Michigan's efficiency overall. 
How is the State facilitating regional planning to maximize resources and achieving serious improvements in environmental quality issues?
We have a whole regional team that's working to develop some strategies to help groups work together. There are some great examples of it throughout the state, including Traverse City's BetterBuildings program.

One of the places we've really seen regionalism work is in recycling. We have a comparatively small proportion of counties that have facilities where we consider it easy to recycle. One of the early things we've learned is that some of the regional efforts have been successful in making recycling programs possible and easy for residents. We're eager to learn more about that cooperation, and the Michigan Municipal League and others have been helping us discover some of the success stories as well as some of the challenges. We'll be educating ourselves on how to make it happen, but regionalism might be a big piece of the answer. 
Are we moving into a time where we're asking more of our citizens in terms of information gathering? So much of the message is about education and people looking for the right information, how can the government inspire that drive in people?
I think inspiring it is important, but actually creating the information and making it available is the first step. You can say to people "why aren't you educated?" and if you haven't created those pieces of information, you're asking them to try to wade through a lot of conflicting stuff. We think Michigan citizens actually are hungry for trusted and unbiased resources and will respond with good decision-making. So, really what we can do is first make sure of what it is they're looking for, and that's what we're trying to do: getting information and resources to people. 
What is the general mood at the State about this sustainable path we're heading down?
Relentlessly positive and focused on action! 

Veronica Gracia-Wing is the innovation editor for Model D's sister publication in Lansing, Capital Gains.
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