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October 18, 2012

High Stakes on the Great Lakes

This November, a ballot initiative in Michigan will determine whether that state's boom in renewable energy and clean-tech jobs gains even more momentum. It's a popular and sensible measure, but it's by no means a slam-dunk. An article by Jill Lepore that ran in The New Yorker last month, called "The Lie Factory," explains why good legislation doesn't always succeed.

Lepore tells the story of the first-ever modern political-consulting firm (Campaigns Inc), which successfully torpedoed a 1945 proposal for comprehensive health insurance in California. A few years later, when Harry Truman proposed a national health insurance plan, the same firm was hired by the American Medical Association to kill it:

[the] campaign against Harry Truman's national-health-insurance proposal cost the A.M.A. nearly five million dollars, and it took more than three years. But they turned the President's sensible, popular, and urgently needed legislative reform into a bogeyman so scary that, even today, millions of Americans are still scared.

Fast-forward to present-day Michigan and Proposal 3, the ballot initiative that would require Michigan utilities to utilize 25 percent renewable energy sources by 2025, or "25 X 25." The idea didn't come out of nowhere -- it's building on success. Four years ago, Michigan adopted a standard that requires utilities to get 10 percent of the power they sell from renewable energy sources by 2015. So far, it's working great.

One reason why it's working is because moving to renewable energy plays to Michigan's resource strengths. The state currently must import coal and oil from other states, even though it has enough potential wind-energy resources (thanks to the Great Lakes) to supply all the power it needs and then some. What's more, developing and producing renewable energy technologies like wind and solar within the state's borders creates exactly the kinds of construction and manufacturing jobs that Michigan needs.

For these reasons, and because people have seen for themselves that the existing renewable standard is working, the new 25 percent proposal is popular with likely voters and with small business owners.

Here's who doesn't like it, though: The companies that sell coal to Michigan. Big Coal is spending millions of dollars in an attempt to convince people that clean, affordable renewable energy is somehow bad for Michigan. With no sense of irony, they've even named their front group "Clean Affordable Energy for Michigan."

Clean-energy advocates are working hard to tell the real story, but they're being outspent big time. Not just in Michigan but across the country, entrenched energy utilities and fossil fuel companies are spending whatever it takes to protect their status quo. Just like six decades ago, most of the money is being spent in an attempt to make people fear change -- even change for the better. My guess is that it's going to be close, but I think reality will prevail this time.

So keep an eye on Michigan next month. If Proposition 3 passes, it'll be both a victory for grassroots organizing and a message to the world that Americans are ready to drive full speed ahead toward a clean-energy future.

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