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Public Service commissioner talks alternative energy, vulnerable communities

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In 2019, Michigan State University alum Tremaine Phillips was appointed to the three-member Public Service Commission, making him one of the country’s youngest public service commissioners at age 33.

The commission’s mission is to “serve the public by ensuring safe, reliable and accessible energy and telecommunications services at reasonable rates.”

That includes regulation of landlines, cable television and energy infrastructure. While it’s not an environmental agency, the commission oversees clean energy operations and sometimes assesses the environmental impact of existing infrastructure in its decision-making, Phillips said.

Phillips spoke about alternative energy, protecting communities and more. Here’s our conversation, lightly edited:

What have you learned since being appointed to the commission in 2019?

I thought I knew a lot coming into this job, but it’s just made me learn and appreciate the complexity and the amount of devotion and commitment it takes to sustain all this good stuff we have going. 

So, I never take for granted the light switch when I turn it on. Reliable energy is not a guarantee for many people across the world. 

I think of the complexity and how many thousands and tens of thousands of people are waking up every day to make sure the system is safe and reliable.

How did your experience at Michigan State and studying abroad prepare you for what you do now?

I was able to go to Australia. I’ve been able to explore the Amazon and Brazil through another experience at Michigan State and traveled to a number of places in Europe and Asia. 

It’s helped me understand the impacts of some decisions we’re making here from a climate change context. And then getting a different perspective on how similar energy infrastructure is in other countries and how dissimilar in other ways.

One of the most amazing things in Australia was learning about the Aboriginal people and communities there and seeing how some environmental impacts that they’re facing are very similar to what Black and Brown communities face here in the U.S. 

Where do Michigan and the U.S. rank on clean energy?

The speed at which we are transitioning away from coal and fossil fuels in general, but mostly coal, would surprise folks nationally, as well as folks in Michigan. Consumers Energy and DTE, at least in terms of their plans and strategies on generation of electricity from their centralized plants, are two of the more progressive utilities in the country.

We can and we need to do much more in allowing for distributed generation, allowing for solar energy storage or renewables at individual, community or business locations. But that’s an area where we’re kind of in the middle of the pack, if not a little bit further.

What would you like to see happen in terms of energy infrastructure?

We’re trying to have more prioritization of how we ensure reliability and resilience of our system. I want a better understanding of how utilities are not only planning for the climate impacts that they projected but how are they preparing for climate impacts that are beyond the norm, the climate impacts of the next decade or two decades? 

Empowering — at least the piloting or exploration of — new technologies. How can electric vehicles, in the near future, not only help that individual home increase its reliability and resilience to an outage, but how can you aggregate all these individual electric vehicle batteries to provide other benefits to that energy system? 

At the end of the day, we also have to ensure that folks can afford the electricity.

When working on gas pipelines and things like that are often Native American issues, how do you navigate that?

The governor (Gretchen Whitmer) has prioritized tribal issues in her administration. For example, every agency has to have a tribal liaison. We have one. We connect with the tribes on a monthly basis, not only on pending issues like Line 5, (referring to the controversy about the pipeline carrying natural gas and light crude oil under the Straits of Mackinac) – but also making sure they understand different opportunities they could take advantage of. 

I’ve been working with our tribal liaison to ensure that tribal communities know there’s over a billion dollars in federal funding for broadband for tribal communities available through the COVID response bills. 

We tend to have negative connotations of nuclear energy. Should the public be concerned about nuclear power plants around the Great Lakes?

We have to have a certain level of concern and caution about nuclear energy because of its potential to create long-term detrimental impacts on communities and on ecosystems, and accidents can and will happen. 

But the threats to those facilities, right now, are well managed. 

In terms of the priority list of the biggest concerns to our energy system in our ecosystem here in Michigan on a day-to-day basis, nuclear power plants and the waste associated with those power plants isn’t on the top of that list. 

But long term, we need to figure out a way to move that material away from the Great Lakes. People don’t want nuclear waste sitting next to the largest source of freshwater in the world.

Does the technology we have now, specifically wind or solar, have the ability to take over for coal and other traditional forms of energy? 

We continue to see the technology we have now, the technology that’s at our fingertips, can get us probably 80% of the way there. But it’s that last 20%. 

How it was put to me, when I was in my environmental economics class, is that if you put 10 million marbles in this room, it’s pretty easy and cost-effective to get those first several million marbles out of the classroom. 

But as you get to less and less marbles, they’re harder to find and they’re in more nooks and crannies. It becomes more expensive, more time consuming, to get those last marbles out of the classroom. 

That’s like decarbonizing. When you get to those last notches in terms of decarbonization, it becomes more costly. 

You have to weigh the cost-benefit of whether it makes sense to do 100% decarbonization. Is that just a public policy goal or something that we actually need?

How do we combat the loss of jobs?

When you go from a coal plant to a natural gas plant, you can go from 200 or 400 jobs to 40 or 60. When you go from a natural gas plant down to a wind or solar facility, you go from 40 jobs to four or five. And this isn’t just in the electricity industry. 

In the utility industry, a lot of folks at these facilities are ready to retire. Maybe you do early buyouts and allow them to retire a bit earlier than they normally would. They have tremendous skill sets to be transitioned to other parts of the energy system. 

But it’s not just about the folks that work at those plants. It’s about the restaurants, bars, everything that’s located around those coal facilities that also face financial impacts. 

It’s about the tax base. 

Michigan is trying to put all the resources that we can to help utilities transition these workers, whether within or outside the utility industry, and then support communities. Then we can clean up these spots, turn these brownfields into greenfields so they can be redeveloped either as economic assets or maybe turned into green assets.

What is the main thing standing in the way of clean energy?

In the energy sector, all the trends are going in the right direction. We need to figure out regional transmission. If a lot of our wind capacity for our country has been produced in the Great Plains, how can we get that capacity to other parts, like to the Southern U.S., that don’t have as much wind capacity. 

Internationally, we have to have an understanding that, historically, the U.S. and other Western nations have contributed the most to climate change. 

Therefore, we have the greatest responsibility to contribute to its mitigation, and then contribute to the adaptation and preparedness of developing countries that will face the worst brunt of climate change impacts.

And how much should we allow developing countries to continue to emit because they haven’t been granted that opportunity to emit emissions and develop their economies in a rapid way like we were able to?

What would you like to achieve before your 6-year term is up?

Establishment of a broadband office in Michigan, affordable access to broadband service for everyone, increased electric vehicle manufacturing and deployment of battery storage and offshore wind power. 

Rachel Duckett reports for Great Lakes Echo.

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