Utility Front Group Raises $24 Million For Scare Campaign To Defeat Michigan Renewable Energy Initiative

A Screen shot from an anti-Proposal 3 ad

Earlier this year, conservative political organizations announced that they would lead an effort to repeal state-level renewable energy targets. In Michigan, voters are seeing just how far opposition groups are willing to go to shut down renewables this election season.

In August, clean energy advocates in Michigan successfully put Proposal 3 on the ballot, an initiative that would increase the state’s renewable electricity target to 25 percent by 2025. Three months later, a front group representing Michigan’s two largest utilities has raised nearly $24 million to defeat the proposal, outspending supporters 2-1 on television, radio and direct mailer advertisements.

The heavy-spending group, called “Coalition for Affordable Renewable Energy,” — or CARE — is primarily supported by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, two large utilities with high penetrations of coal. Each company has spent $11 million to campaign against new renewable energy targets. The group also received $100,000 from Enbridge, the energy company responsible for spilling over one million gallons of diluted tar sands crude in the Kalamazoo River in southwest Michigan.

The group has released multiple ads attempting to scare voters about higher energy bills, and claim that the targets will force a reliance on “outdated” technologies imported from California. Experts have called the ads “misleading.

Michigan utilities are highly coal-dependent. That’s one of the reasons why Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are so opposed to the new targets and are spreading fear about the cost of renewable energy. In fact, a Michigan Public Service Commission report from earlier this year showed that wind, solar, and hydro resources are “cheaper than new coal-fired generation” in the state.

And according to a recent economic analysis promoted by supporters of Proposal 3, the cost of delivering coal to power plants in the state has jumped by 71 percent since 2006. Consumers Energy has projected fuel cost increases to total around $530 million over the next four years — resulting in a 3 percent rate increase each year. In contrast, clean energy advocates say that increasing Michigan’s renewable electricity targets will cost the average residential ratepayer 50 cents per month.

In the case of Proposal 3, it’s mostly energy companies fighting new targets. But one conservative group, the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity, has chipped in $1.5 million to defeat the ballot initiative as well. The organization, which has spent more than $31 million on ads nation-wide this campaign season, is sending out direct mailers to voters telling them how to vote on several of Michigan’s ballot initiatives.

Even with support from small businesses and prominent politicians like Bill Clinton, groups supporting the measure have raised just over $12 million — less than half of the cash raised by opponents.

This blitz of spending has changed public opinion about Proposal 3 in a very short period of time. In September, a majority of Michigan voters said they would support increasing the state’s renewable energy targets to 25 percent. But today, as voters are inundated with ads opposing the initiative, only 35 percent say they support Proposal 3.

When Proposal 3 was accepted on the ballot in August, onlookers called it one of the most important fights for renewable energy in the country. But no one foresaw just how much money utilities would dump into the ongoing scare campaign.

5 Responses to Utility Front Group Raises $24 Million For Scare Campaign To Defeat Michigan Renewable Energy Initiative

  1. BillD says:

    It will be a shame if the renewable energy standard for Michigan is defeated as suggested in this article. I hope that the forces for clean and renewable energy will push back and continue to fight the good fight. Afterall, there is still time before 2025 to pass this rule. If Michigan can’t pass such a rule, there is little hope for my state of Indiana, which is controled by Republicans and has even greater dependence on dirty coal for electricity. I would personally be happy paying twice as much for electricity when a cap and trade goes into effect, to show the short-sightedness of our state’s energy policy. By delaying the transition to clean, renewable energy, these politicians and utility companies are harming the climate while risking a much more rapid and costly shift to renewable energy in the future.

  2. L.D. Gussin says:

    The positions of both sides in this campaign say important things to climate activism.

    The fierce, stupid campaign by these Michigan utilities show an industry that, historically united, is now very split. Some big utilities side with the fossil fuel lobby, others work to integrate significant efficiency and low carbon generation into new business models. Some, duplicitous, do both. Should climate activism expose utilities as a part of its effort to isolate the fossil fuel industry?

    As for the pro-renewables campaign, it NEVER mentions climate change. The organizers made this decision for whatever reason. I think a great teaching opportunity was lost and the campaign itself weakened.

    A Guardian article details how a strategy to be silent on climate change came about:

    From the article:

    “There was a really big emphasis on talking about what I call the sub-narratives – that there were other ways to speak about the opportunity and the challenge of climate change rather than calling it that,” said Maggie Fox, the chief executive of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project. “There was a whole suite of sub-narratives: national security, clean energy future, diversification of energy, health, future generations … ”

    But Fox acknowledges none of those reasons – although compelling – went far enough in justifying the need for sweeping transformation needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. “Over time it became in effect an absence of conversation about climate change as a threat, and I think in the end that proved to be unwise because it is the one reason all these storylines matter.”

    “It’s really hard to sell clean energy. Clean energy is really struggling because the story has gotten garbled,” said Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. “You can’t have a clear conversation, and the reason there can’t be a clear conversation is because of this elephant in the room which is climate change.”

  3. L.D. Gussin says:

    I meant in my previous comment for this sentence “A Guardian article details how a strategy to be silent on climate change came about:” to actually read “A Guardian article details how a strategy by U.S. green groups in general to be silent on climate change came about:”

  4. Mark E says:

    long ago I worked hard on a low-population states third bottle recycling cits initiative. We had a commanding lead in the polls despite our $5000 total budget until 2 weeks before the election when industry outspent us by I-have-forgotten-how-many orders of magnitude. And it was defeated by the skin of its teeth.

    It took years before I could look at the US flag and feel anything other than the deepest betrayal.

    Good luck michigan!

  5. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    This effort is being mirrored in Australia. Not a day passes now when some Rightist is not in the news (the Murdoch propaganda sewer in particular)demanding that the renewable energy target of 20% contribution by renewables by 2020, MUST be destroyed, or all our children will be eaten by giant feral lady-birds, or some other disaster wrought by ‘Green extremism’. This campaign is allied with another led by the Big Brothers of Big Business demanding the removal of ‘green tape’ that is hindering the free expression of their legendary ‘animal spirits’. By ‘green tape’, of course, they mean every environmental law and policy painstakingly eked out over the last thirty years. In other words, they are demanding open slather to do what they like in pursuit of profit maximisation, and to hell with the environment. The coal and gas lobbies are particularly belligerent and bellicose. In this sad little country at least, the Right is on an absolute rampage against every manifestation of environmentalism, an absolutely predictable outcome long anticipated.