Renewable Energy Infrastructure Siting Moves to Streamlined State-Regulated Approval Process in Michigan

As part of a recent energy reform package strongly encouraged by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan House Bills 5120 and 5121 were signed into law on Nov. 28, 2023. These bills, which take effect in one year, authorize the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to, for the first time, conduct permitting of certain renewable energy facilities before they may be constructed in the state. Specifically, the MPSC will now issue permits for solar energy systems with a nameplate capacity — the full-load output as designed — of at least 50 megawatts and wind energy systems with a nameplate capacity of at least 100 megawatts. Among other things, the law sets statewide standards, including setbacks, fencing, and height limits, and authorizes the MPSC to adopt even more stringent rules.

Before the change in the law, the siting authority for wind and solar resided exclusively with localities like counties and townships, subjecting renewable energy developers to local zoning rules and processes. Developers had to navigate a patchwork of local zoning ordinances and planning commissions, often needing to work with multiple local regulators for the same project. Critics of this regime argued that it deterred extensive new development in a state that otherwise has high renewable energy potential. The new laws largely divest Michigan’s localities of the renewable energy facility permitting jurisdiction for large renewable energy projects, streamlining and centralizing the renewable energy infrastructure siting process at the state level and likely making way for increased future renewable development.

The new laws do retain local government control over smaller capacity solar energy systems. The laws also require a local outreach and education program and meetings with local government officials before an application may be submitted to the MPSC. Finally, the laws include local involvement in the siting and certification process where a locality has a “compatible renewable energy ordinance” – meaning one that mirrors Michigan’s statewide standards. Where a local government has a compatible renewable energy ordinance, the local government retains permitting authority but, if it denies an application, the applicant may seek approval of the renewable energy project from the MPSC. Future facility scoping and siting in the most appropriate community will, therefore, remain imperative for developers going forward under the new state regulatory regime.

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