By Valerie Volcovici
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In less than two weeks, Michigan voters will decide on a hotly contested ballot initiative on whether the state should become the first in the country to enshrine a renewable energy mandate in its constitution, a move that backers say could put clean energy in the national spotlight.
The measure, known as proposal 3, would require that one-quarter of the electricity produced in the state to come from renewable energy sources by 2025.
Michigan, a battle ground state in the U.S. presidential election, is already halfway to meeting its current mandate, passed in 2008 by the state legislature, to produce 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro and biomass by 2015.
Thirty states, including Michigan, have a renewable electricity standard in place but if the proposed amendment passes it would be the first time a renewable energy standard would appear in the constitution, making it difficult to strike down or alter.
Proponents of the proposal have said taking the approach of including a renewable energy mandate in the constitution was necessary to ensure that popular support for green energy is not overshadowed by what they see as special interests in the state government.
"I see this as absolutely important part of the democratic process. It places checks and balances against legislature, which is unwilling to act," said Sam Gomberg, a Chicago-based energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
Gomberg said one year ago, a number of Michigan-based environmental and labor groups talked about extending the state's current renewable energy standard (RES) by 15 years but met strong resistance from utilities.
Instead of floating the expansion of the RES as a statutory initiative on Election Day ballots, proponents introduced it as a constitutional amendment, preventing state lawmakers from drafting competing and contrasting ballot initiatives.
Support for the amendment has been split, prompting the coalition of opposing utilities and business groups called Clean Affordable Renewable Energy to pump $10 million into television advertising to sway voters ahead of the November 6 vote.
The group argues that the measure will cost Michigan taxpayers anywhere from $12 billion to $15 billion largely from higher energy costs and argued the state already has an effective mandate in place.
Amendment backers, which include green group the Sierra Club and the United Auto Workers, say the renewable energy mandate will create 94,000 jobs in the hard-hit manufacturing state and stimulate $10.3 billion in investment.
Republican Governor Rick Snyder said while he supports renewable energy, he opposes the ballot initiative because the current RES is already difficult to meet.
The governor's energy advisor, Valerie Braden, said the state's constitution is a "bad place to put energy policy," especially one that rigidly defines renewable energy sources.
Braden said the language of the proposal does not include, for example, energy efficiency, which she said could be a key component of driving energy production while curbing greenhouse gas emissions.
She also said the governor thinks the amendment would harm both large and small utilities, and force the addition of new generating capacity in a state that has seen production and population decline in a weakened economy.
"There is now 10 percent less people and 10 percent more energy. Do we need another 15 percent even if it isn't driving costs?" she said, citing forecasts for lower demand for investor-owned utility Detroit Edison.
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS
For both sides of the debate, the impact the amendment would have on jobs in a state hit hard by manufacturing job losses has formed the central part of their arguments.
Mark Fisk, the spokesman for the Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs coalition of amendment supporters, said the amendment will give Michigan its best job-creating opportunity in a while.
"If the proposition fails, those jobs will go to other states and other countries," he said.
"We believe that Michigan should become a leader in the clean energy industry with our manufacturing history and know-how. If we don't other states and other countries will be glad to take those jobs and companies."
Jeff Holyfield, a spokesman for investor-owned Consumers Energy, said expanding the RES does not ensure job creation and that Michigan voters should be wary of job creation promises after a slate of recent high-profile job cuts.
Consumers Energy parent CMS Energy and DTE Energy, parent of Detroit Edison, have spent $6.4 million to topple the amendment.
Holyfield cited solar manufacturer Uni-Solar, which had to suspend manufacturing in Greenville, Michigan, and put 400 employees on furlough last year, as well as bankrupt electric car battery maker A123, which laid off Michigan employees last fall.
"Any consideration of expanding the RES should wait until after 2015 and then we can evaluate it," he said, adding that the state should focus ensuring stable baseload electricity capacity from natural gas rather than renewables, which supplies intermittent power.
Holyfield said the vote has less to do with not liking renewable energy and more to do with protecting customers from being locked into a law.
"One of the things that people don't understand is if you have a law and it's not working - you can fix it with the governors' office.
"But if you want to change something in the constitution, you will have to collect signatures."
(Editing by Bob Burgdorfer)