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A pro-renewable energy coalition has received the green light to gather signatures in pursuit of a November ballot measure that would mandate Michigan energy companies get at least 30% of their power from wind, solar or other renewable sources by 2030.

But officials with the state’s two biggest utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, are already pushing back on the proposal, saying progress toward more wind and solar energy is already occurring, and that an inflexible mandate could lead to higher costs to ratepayers.

The group working toward the ballot measure, called Clean Energy, Clean Michigan, will need to gather at least 252,523 valid signatures within 180 days to put its proposal on the Nov. 6 general election ballot.

A similar ballot measure, calling for a state constitutional amendment mandating 25% renewable energy use by 2025, was soundly defeated by voters in November 2012. But things have changed since then, said John Freeman, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association and campaign manager for the ballot proposal.

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“I think our society has come a long ways to understanding the importance of embracing renewable energy,” he said.

“Renewable energy use brings positive public health outcomes: less asthma, less emphysema, less cancer, particularly in urban areas. We now know we can get this energy at less cost with less pollution. And I don’t think the public as a whole understood that fully back in 2012.”

DTE Energy Chairman and CEO Gerry Anderson, however, expressed puzzlement at the timing of the new ballot measure. After DTE, Consumers Energy and other large state utilities reached a goal of 10% of energy from renewable sources by 2015, as mandated by the legislature in 2008, state lawmakers in late 2016 passed a new energy plan, upping the renewable portfolio standard to 15% by 2021.

“We just took a very visible step forward on this agenda and did it in bipartisan fashion,” Anderson said. “I can guarantee you, as we look at our long-term plans, it’s going to include more renewables. We’re going to keep adding renewables because it’s the right thing to do, both economically and environmentally.”

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DTE announced a $15-billion plan in May to eliminate its coal-fired power plants and reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. The utility is on track to meet the state’s new 15% mandate by 2021, Anderson said, and will then “keep adding renewable resources.”

Freeman, while acknowledging Michigan’s continued move toward more renewable energy, questions the pace.

“DTE can say all they want about how much they want to move to renewables,” he said. “But by what they’ve filed with the Michigan Public Service Commission, they don’t clearly want to build any more renewables than what they are required to do under the current state law.”

The state’s current renewable portfolio standard ranks it 18th among U.S. states. “At 30%, Michigan once again becomes a leader,” Freeman said.

But Anderson said setting policy by ballot measure, when the Legislature has shown a willingness to act on the issue, isn’t wise. He also questioned the locked-in mandates a ballot measure would set, and how they might affect costs.

Anderson noted that the measure mandating 10% by 2015 passed by the Legislature in late 2008 occurred just before the world sank into the Great Recession. The measure allowed DTE to hold off on the bulk of its wind power infrastructure purchasing for a few years, until costs dropped by more than half.

“If we had to build the same amount of wind resources but had no flexibility, and just had to march it in year by year, we would have invested a lot more at high prices early than we ultimately did,” he said.

Consumers Energy spokeswoman Katelyn Carey noted the utility retired more coal plants than any other investor-owned utility in 2016 and has less than 23% of its energy mix coming from coal today. Consumers is “already making major investments in renewable energy and we will continue to do so in the coming years,” she said.

“We do not need a legal mandate to do the right thing for our customers, Michigan and our planet. Our top focus will remain on delivering Michigan with reliable, sustainable and affordable energy for decades to come, regardless of what happens with a ballot proposal.”

As was the case with the 2012 proposal, the current ballot measure effort is funded in large part by San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire and progressive activist Tom Steyer, who has funded similar pushes for renewable energy throughout the country.

“Tom Steyer is not forcing his agenda on anybody,” Freeman said. “He is working with Michigan-based organizations to promote renewable energy. I think that’s to be commended.

“This is a tremendous economic development tool. If renewable energy can be produced at less expense, the savings can be passed on to farmers, businesses and homeowners. And they can invest the savings back into their industry, their farm or their home budget.”

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or kmatheny@freepress.com. Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.

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DTE Energy on Tuesday announced plans for a dramatic transformation of its power generation. Detroit Free Press

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