1st Friday Focus on the Environment: Overcoming obstacles to creating more eco-friendly energy systems

ABOUT DONNA LASINSKI:

State Rep. Donna Lasinski is serving her third term in the House of Representatives. She represents Michigan’s 52nd House District, which encompasses northern and western Washtenaw County, including Chelsea, Dexter, Manchester, Saline and Whitmore Lake. Rep. Lasinski previously served as a member of the Communications and Technology and Insurance Committees, and as minority vice chair of the Energy Policy Committee.

A resident of Scio Township for 20 years, Rep. Lasinski has always believed in taking action to solve community problems. During her first term she took action to address water quality issues in her district, winning stricter clean-up standards for 1,4-dioxane and co-sponsoring legislation to set safe PFAS standards for drinking water. She honored her commitment to accountability by passing a government transparency bill unanimously out of the House, and by hosting regular coffee hours and town halls to hear input from her constituents.

Knowing that a strong community stems from strong schools, Rep. Lasinski’s Education leadership includes having served as the treasurer for the Ann Arbor School Board, director of the Washtenaw County Association of School Boards, leader of the Education Millage Team, parent liaison for the Great Start Collaborative for Early childhood in Washtenaw County, and as an interim director for Success by Six in Washtenaw County.

Rep. Lasinski graduated from Eisenhower High School in Shelby Township. She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Michigan and her Master of Business Administration degree from Northwestern University. She is the President of ThinkStretch, LLC, a successful K-12 education company she founded to emphasize summer learning and retention that currently operates in 38 states.

Rep. Lasinski is the oldest of four siblings. Her husband, Mike, is also a small-business owner, and together they are the proud parents of three sons: Alec, Nate and Jack.

ABOUT LISA WOZNIAK:

Lisa Wozniak

Michigan League of Conservation Voters

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michiganlcv.org

Michigan League of Conservation Voters executive director Lisa Wozniak

Lisa’s career spans over two decades of environmental and conservation advocacy in the political arena. She is a nationally- recognized expert in non-profit growth and management and a leader in Great Lakes protections. Lisa is a three-time graduate from the University of Michigan, with a bachelor’s degree and two ensuing master’s degrees in social work and Education.

Lisa serves a co-host and content partner in 89.1 WEMU’s ‘1st Friday Focus on the Environment.’

RESOURCES:

Michigan League of Conservation Voters

Michigan Legislature

Michigan House of Representatives

Donna Lasinski

Thorn Lake Solar Project

TRANSCRIPTION:

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and it’s the end of the first week of August. And every month that means we’re going to take on more issues regarding the health of our air, land, water and people. I’m David Fair, and I’d like to welcome you to WEMU’s First Friday Focus on the Environment. Today, we’re going to touch on renewable energy, politics, and matters of NIMBY–Not in my backyard. My co-host every first Friday is Lisa Wozniak. She is executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. As always, good to be with you, Lisa.

Lisa Wozniak: And it’s always a pleasure to be here, Dave. Our guest today is 52nd District State Representative Donna Lasinski. She’s in her final term as representative and serves as House Minority Leader. We should note that the 52nd District includes Saline, Chelsea, Manchester, and Manchester Township is central to today’s conversation.

David Fair: Thank you so much for joining us, Representative Lasinski.

Donna Lasinski: Yes. Glad to be here. Thank you.

David Fair: We talked so much about the need for greater investment in renewable energies to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels as we continue to lose ground in the climate crisis. Sometimes, even when investment is accessible, the process of making it reality is easier said than done. As Lisa mentioned, earlier this month, Manchester Township Planning Commission rejected the Thorne Lake Solar Project by denying a zoning permit to a Virginia-based global energy corporation. Where were you positioned on the issue?

Donna Lasinski: Thank you for that question. You know, as the former ranking Democrat on the House Energy Committee here at the state, it has been important to me during my entire term of service that we move towards more energy-efficient, clean energy. We have to ensure that we are taking care of Michigan in the long run and addressing climate change. So, when in our district–in my district–as we’ve looked across the communities, there have been opportunities to move towards cleaner energy, to move towards increased access to nonpolluting energy creation. I have been in support of those projects.

Lisa Wozniak: So, had this project been approved, it would have resulted in a 159-acre solar farm that would produce enough power to supply approximately 5000 homes. The generated electricity would have been sold to Consumers Energy to use in its service area. And the Michigan utilities have been investing in green power, which is a great thing. But they’ve also been lobbying to ensure that they maintain control and the profits in the renewable sector. In your conversations with the Manchester Township officials, did that play any role in the ultimate decision?

Donna Lasinski: So, it’s interesting. As the conversation around this project evolved, there are very strong feelings out in rural areas, around property rights, around the ability to be a landowner, and to make the best use and the highest use of that land. And so, the conversation began mostly around this project as a proposal for the township. There was a sale of the property. It was an allowable use within the township there. And as it moved forward, the conversation changed. I don’t believe it was around profitability or control of the property, but the conversation changed in a way that for me was disturbing because it changed towards some of the arguments we’ve heard around other sources of clean energy that are untrue, that are false, and that promote fearmongering around neighboring property owners.

David Fair: That decision is in the books. AES Corporation is the company that was trying to bring the Thorn Lake Solar Project to reality. It said it would have invested nearly $34 million to make it happen. Have you or any other state officials had conversations with them to see if that is money they might be willing to invest elsewhere in Michigan?

Donna Lasinski: So, I know that there are several other solar projects under evaluation. What I am, from a state perspective, I want to ensure that we’re doing as that is making sure that folks who are making these decisions at the local level. Zoning and ordinances are the domain or are the responsibility of local governing authorities. What we don’t want to see happen is, one, these type of projects zoned out of possibility. We have to have these. We have to move towards cleaner energy. And it’s something that citizens of Michigan, both in rural, urban, and suburban areas, have said is one of their top priorities. We have to be able to do that. The next thing we want to make sure at from the state perspective is that accurate information is being used in this decision making process. And we have to call out where fear mongering and other, frankly, not fact-based impacts of putting in a solar project are being shared with local residents and causing them to reject these projects based on false information. It’s something that, again, we’ve seen work in other areas, and it’s simple fearmongering from folks who, frankly, often are just not interested in moving us towards cleaner energy sources.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU’s First Friday Focus on the Environment continues. I’m David Fair alongside my co-host Lisa Wozniak, the executive director of the Michigan League Conservation Voters. And our guest today is Michigan House Democratic leader Donna Lasinski.

Lisa Wozniak: So, finding communities to house the solar and wind farms can be difficult, as you pointed out. And some call this a NIMBY issue, which we introduced at the beginning of this conversation–Not in my Backyard. These zoning issues and approvals are super hyper local decisions, as you’ve pointed out–township boards, county commissions. What if it’s not a state answer? Is it an answer locale by locale? Do more people have to get involved in each of these communities to make sure that they’re pushing back at the fearmongering and the falsehoods? What do you think the answer is here?

Donna Lasinski: So, I really appreciate that perspective, Lisa, because that’s exactly what we’re seeing just across–just not more than really a stone’s throw west–of where this project was rejected. A project was accepted in Jackson County right there on the border of Jackson and Washtenaw County. A couple of people showed up in a meeting, mostly in support. The project went through, and it was no problem. What we saw in Manchester Township was the deliberate undermining of this project, and that is where from the state, in my opinion, making sure that we have accurate information that can be presented regarding environmental impacts, the positive impact on the environment of solar projects, that we have accurate information about land use rights and obligations, and that we have accurate information around what zoning permits, what the Right to Farm Act does in terms of addressing this, and the ability of a farm owner to install these type of projects on their property. We want to make sure that all of that information is ready and easily acceptable to members of the local community, so that when these discussions happen, local township authorities have access to this information, so that they can make planning decisions that are right and appropriate for their township. And in doing that, frankly, they need access to fact-based information about the impacts positive of these projects.

David Fair: The utilities are going to play a role in Michigan’s energy future. Consumers Energy recently released its long-term energy plan, and it includes 8000 megawatts of additional solar energy by the year 2040. Can the utilities be trusted to go into these communities, into these neighborhoods, and pass along fact-based information?

Donna Lasinski: I think the source of the information is very important to township officials and local residents, and that is where it’s important that the utilities and that others are sharing information. But I think we do have to have a sense that there is unbiased information that’s out there. And I do think that’s a role that the state can play in having information available to all local township officials. There are several hurdles that solar projects need to go through. They need to be located in a place that where they can easily connect to the transmission grid to get the power to the places that it needs to go. They need to have the skilled labor in order to build those. And on the state level, we have made tremendous advances in that. Just in this fiscal year 23 budget, we allocated $55 million for the going pro, which is helping build our skilled trades in Michigan. 500,000 for helmet to hardhats, 10 million for a statewide apprenticeship program to try and address the labor hurdles. We’ve also with the governing agency over transmission capacity. I worked with them to approve $10.3 billion in new transmission infrastructure to hook up what we hope will be 50 gigawatts of renewable energy within our connected transmission network. So, we’re doing what we can and having local communities step forward, ask the questions, and have access to reliable information is going to be critical for both local government and for citizens.

David Fair: WEMU’s First Friday Focus on the Environment continues. And, Lisa, I know that you’ve been interested in what’s been happening at the federal level as to how it may impact us here in Michigan.

Lisa Wozniak: Absolutely. The U.S. Supreme Court recently weakened the federal government’s ability to respond and take action on climate change. But now, we see that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin have reached a preliminary agreement that will invest nearly $37 billion in energy security and climate change initiatives. I’m interested to know what elements you’re looking at, Representative Lasinski, as a potential boost to the state and local efforts right here in Michigan.

Donna Lasinski: So, I appreciate that question. Also, there is a lot going on right now. And what we have seen over the course of the Biden administration is tremendous opportunities for state government and local governments to access federal funding, to do things that will help us with our clean water infrastructure, that will help us move toward nonpolluting sources of energy generation. What we have found is that the federal government is doing two things at once. It’s sending dollars directly to the state and sending dollars directly to communities to help in these projects. We have introduced here at the state a number of programs that we are hoping to be able to fund to make clean energy generation more accessible to residents. We have something called a pay program that helps residential and commercial properties increase their access to local clean energy generation. As these federal funds and, as you call it, a preliminary agreement becomes more firm, we will be acting very rapidly to work to appropriate those dollars, get them out to communities, and get them in the places that we know we need greater access to clean energy, greater opportunity for residents to make the choice to use energy that’s been generated from clean sources. And that’s very important.

David Fair: Well, we are now past the primary elections, headed toward the midterm elections in November. And, after that, we enter lame duck. And while you will be serving until January before departing the Michigan Legislature, do you see a path forward for more proactive measures to better support the transition to a more sustainable energy future before the next legislature comes in in January?

Donna Lasinski: I do. And where I see that action most likely to happen is through the budget. It’s through the opportunity if there are–and I believe there will be–increased federal funding coming out of this agreement that President Biden has negotiated. I believe that we will have the opportunity to allocate more direct dollars for clean energy generation and to the items that we need to support that grid-strengthening transmission system improvements, so that instead of just having energy generated in one or two typically urban locations that create a lot of pollution for the surrounding communities where asthma rates are the highest, we, you know, hopefully will be able to move towards this distributed generation model where we’re creating clean energy all across the state in a fair and transparent way for the benefit of all of our residents. And these dollars, I believe, will be helpful to that. And that is our greatest opportunity prior to the close of this legislative session in December.

David Fair: Representative Lasinski, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. I appreciate it.

Donna Lasinski: Thank you. I look forward to it every time.

David Fair: That is 52nd District State Representative Donna Lasinski, who serves as House Democratic Leader. She’s been our guest on First Friday Focus on the Environment. My co-host for this monthly segment is Lisa Wozniak. Lisa is the executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. And what do you say we do it again on the first Friday of September?

Lisa Wozniak: I hope to do just that. Thank you, David. Thank you, Representative Lasinski.

David Fair: For more information on today’s topic and to visit the first Friday Focus on the Environment archive, all you have to do is take a peek at our website at WEMU dot org. I’m David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti.

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