A. Yes. I am a patent attorney by training. I practiced patent law for 15 years before I ran for office. I practiced primarily in the chemical area, because my undergraduate degree is in chemistry. So I did work in chemical patent procurement, litigation, and I practiced in the area of trademark and copyright law as well..
Q. What made you want to run for legislative representative?
A. Primarily for me, the issue of economic development and job creation is something that I am very interested in. As a patent attorney, I have had a lot of dealings with people that were developing their ideas; using their patents as a basis for starting a company. It occurred to me with all of the talk about diversifying our economy, creating new jobs, and moving away from the auto sector, that someone with a background in patents and technology would be helpful in the legislature to at least advance the issues and also to dispel some myths in terms of how ideas can actually get to the market to create new jobs and diversify the economy. That was really the main reason.
Q. So has it been real difficult since you started getting legislation or ideas passed?
A. Well, initially, I think there is a steep learning curve. Being an attorney I found has been helpful because you are trained to read statutes, interpret words in statutes as having certain meanings and things like that. So I think being an attorney is helpful, but insofar as the legislative process goes, I think for everyone it is a pretty steep learning curve. And with the term limits you are sort of forced to absorb and assimilate information very quickly because in the House side your term is at a maximum of six years. I think that you don't have really a lot of time to just sit back and take it all in. Although I think that some of that is necessary on some level, it is a new endeavor, so you do have to learn the process and what not.
The second part of the question, has it been difficult the get bills passed? I was very fortunate. The committees I serve on fit very well with my background and my interests. I am on Energy and Technology, I'm on Insurance, vice chair of the Judiciary Committee, and I am on Tax Policy. I feel very fortunate because the committee structure allows you to sort of understand the issues in each of those committees. A lot of the work legislatively is done in the committees. Because of the committees that I serve on, I was able to deal with an issue that I came to the legislature with and that is tax incentives for businesses that are diversifying in a discipline called green chemistry. Those bills passed the House maybe about a month ago and now they are on the Senate side. So I was actually surprised at how quickly we were able to get the ideas drafted into bill form, then heard in the committee, and then passed out on the floor. I had heard stories of things taking a long, long time, and this happened very quickly. I was very pleasantly surprised at that. Now hopefully we will be able to have the same situation over in the Senate and send them to the Governor's desk quickly. But that I don't know.
Q. You already mentioned one of the committees that you are serving on is the Energy and Technology Committee. Can you tell me a little bit about the committee and the current environmental issues that you are discussing?
A. Yes, the Energy and Technology Committee is primarily involved with the regulated industries such as Telecom, cable, as well as the power and the electric companies. That is the general purview although we have taken up some bills pertaining to renewable energy and alternative energy as well. In large part, the committee deals with the regulated industries.
Now, last session, one of the major pieces of environmental legislation that was handled through Energy and Technology was the renewable portfolio standard, which was a major step forward for the alternative energy sector. Because in passing that bill it basically says that by certain benchmark dates the power companies must either generate or purchase a certain percentage of their energy from wind, solar, biomass, alternative energy. That is called the Renewable Portfolio Standard. I believe that the benchmark is ten percent will be generated or purchased by 2014.
Now, was that a compromise? Certainly. What I am hearing is that, like anything, there was some interested parties that wanted more, some that wanted less, so that was a compromise. Is there a notion that we can do better? Certainly. There have been some discussions about tweaking those benchmark numbers, and certainly what the Obama administration does at the national level in terms of dealing with global climate change and whatnot, I think sends a message to states as well as to where they are expected to be. But, insofar as the environment and environmental issues are concerned, that was a big piece of the puzzle. That was passed last term. This term what we have looked at so far are some bills pertaining to tax credits for alternative energy installations and incentives for energy efficiency projects. That has been the environmental component thus far in that committee.
Q. I remember I read an article on Michigan's renewable portfolio standard, and it was talking about how companies started raising their bills to the consumers to cover the expenses for the renewable energy resources. Can you explain what has been going on with that? Have people been arguing against that or lobbying especially in this type of economy?
A. Not as much as I would have expected. There has been some pushback in rate increases in the individual market to pay for the investment or the increased costs of purchasing or generating renewable energy. I would have expected more of a pushback given as you said the economic climate that we are in. I suspect that in addition to there being a lot of economic hardship there also, I believe, is a prevailing notion, and again I do believe that it is in part because of the emphasis on global climate change that the Obama Administration is taking, that there is at least an understanding if not an acceptance and at least an understanding that there is going to be a cost associated with the movement away from fossil fuels, but that it is less of a cost and more of an investment for future generations. Maybe that accounts for the resignation amongst consumers that the rates have gone up. There certainly have been increased rates and as I understand, in passing the renewable portfolio standard, that was something that was a trade off that got the power companies on board, that in return that they would have the ability to raise their rates, which did happen.
Q. Recently, you and two other representatives drafted House Bills 4817- 4819, regarding green chemistry, can you tell me a will be about those bills?
A. Yes, that was an idea that I had resulting from a meeting with the Michigan Environmental Council. They shared with me a package of legislation, they were very interested in introducing this session pertaining to toxic toys and increasing the numbers of toxic chemicals that are considered to be banned in the state with an eye toward child safety and making sure that these bad chemicals do not appear in children's products or products that children would be likely using: Toys, child safety seats, bottles, caps for the bottles, things of that nature.
As part of that initial package there was some discussion about green chemistry and how there is a movement, at least in some states, to really think about how things are manufactured in a way that is sustainable from start to finish; not just how something is made, but with an eye toward what happens after its use is exhausted and how that product may be disposed of and what the chemicals that went into that once they are broken down, the environmental impact of that process. Not just the manufacturing process but also how the product is broken down and that process and the environmental impact and the toxic impact, really the sustainability of how we make things. And that branch of chemistry, if you will, it is a relatively new and emerging technology called "green chemistry" and it is governed by the 12 principles of green chemistry as set forth by the E. P. A. and chemists and scholars in that area.
Some states have taken the lead in that area and Michigan in 2006 took the lead by the Governor issuing an executive directive that established a green chemistry roundtable. I was very intrigued by that. As I said, my background is in chemistry and biochemistry, and I was very intrigued by the green chemistry roundtable, I attended several of their meetings. They will be having a green chemistry conference, the first in the state, at the end of September where the Governor will be awarding the first round of green chemistry awards for businesses that are engaging in this type of activity.
I started thinking that this is a story that needs to be told insofar as economic diversification and emerging technologies. We have become so focused on our auto sector and people have gotten so bogged down with our loss of jobs that other areas that we have excelled in traditionally have been forgotten. People should not forget that we in Michigan, we are the state that at one time had a thriving chemical industry. A lot of that know how remains. As I started thinking about what could be done legislatively to really give a voice to this emerging technology, it really focused on green chemistry and companies that are already doing it like Dow, to name a large company.
But as I started doing research, I found a lot of small businesses and startup businesses that are utilizing the principles of green chemistry. The way that I initially envisioned this package was to look for areas where we are already giving incentives for companies engaging in emerging technologies, and I found three such programs: The Center for Energy Excellence, The Mega Grant, and then The Michigan Strategic fund, all administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. So this package of bills reflects the research in terms of the areas where we are already giving incentives to businesses engaging in new technologies and simply amending those statutes to reflect green chemistry and its definition as a new and emerging technology that can enjoy these tax incentives along with the others. So that was the genesis of the bill package.
Q. Can you name other companies besides Dow that are embracing green chemistry?
A. Yes, Dow, Dow Corning, General Motors...one of their vice president of sustainable research and development was one of the researchers that testified in favor of the bills. Bio Solutions, which is a small startup is manufacturing enzyme based cleaners, moving away from some of the toxic based cleaners. There is a company in Manistee, I believe it is called Chemfree Solutions, that is manufacturing and making non toxic shampoos and cleaners for lice treatment. Herman Miller is another company that is utilizing and embracing principles of green chemistry in their manufacturing. There is another company I believe called Aphid Therapeutics that is manufacturing, making sustainable solutions for chemical manufacturing, chemical reagents, and things like that. The green chemistry roundtable is a great resource for other companies that are doing it because there are more. Those are the ones that I came up with in my research, but there are others. I came across a baby manufacturing company in Michigan that is using low voc solvents and paints in their baby furniture.
The possibilities are really limitless. When I was doing research in this area, I came across companies, not in Michigan actually, but people that are starting to think of how computers are made and how can they be made in a way so that when their useful life is finished instead of ending up in a landfill, they can be broken down and reused in a way that the chemicals that are traditionally used in computers are less toxic to the environment.
I think it is an important area and the other interesting piece of this is that people, consumers, are driving this in a lot of ways. A lot of people were very concerned about not making this a mandate. I was very much in favor of using incentives as opposed to mandates because in this economic environment I felt that we would get a lot of pushback. But consumers, when they are making their purchasing decisions are often times making their decisions based on intuitive principles of green chemistry whether or not something is non toxic, whether or not the runoff will be a benign chemical or water. So companies were very, very enthusiastic about this.
At the hearing that we had someone remarked to me that they couldn't remember a time when the business community, the chemical manufacturing community, and the environmental community were actually sitting side by side wanting the same thing. So that was kind of a very important signal.
Q. Bill 4817 to 4819 and green energy in general, who are your supporters, who are your allies?
A. Well, in the green chemistry area our biggest allies were the groups that came forward. In support were the Michigan Chemical Society, the Dow, Dow Corning came and testified in support, the Michigan Environmental Council, and the environmental community was very much in support, and we got support from the agricultural community because they were very interested in the processes that they are utilizing in the area of agricultural bioscience and principles that they are using for reducing waste and how they might be rewarded in terms of these tax incentives. So they came forward. This was not a group that I had initially thought to approach, but when they heard of the bills they actually approached us, so that was really interesting. I can't think of a group that actually came out in opposition at all. We had support, really enthusiastic support, from virtually every interest group. And I think that was part of the reason why it passed.
Q. When referring to green energy, in general, who are your opposition and why?
A. In the area of green energy, I don't get a sense that there is really concerted opposition per se, but certainly the regulated industries are concerned about costs. And consumer groups are obviously always concerned about cost as well. In other words, there is a sense of, yes, we want to do this, yes, we need to do this, yes, it is the right thing to do, but who should pay for it is the source of the pushback. When we have hearings on bills that pertain to green energy and investments and wind energy and solar energy, the pushback always comes down to one of costs. The understanding that, yes, we need to do this, seems to be there. You don't really hear people saying, oh, boy, that alternative energy, we shouldn't be looking into that. Or boy, let's continue our dependence on foreign oil. That discussion has happened and that train has left the station.
Really the focus now is on cost and who should bear the costs of transitioning from a system that is based on electric generation from fossil fuels. Let's face it, the majority of our electricity generation in this country is coal and certainly in our state. That is the one of the dirtiest ways of generating power for electricity. The conversion to that is going to be at a cost. There has some opposition to renewable energy from those groups that would like to see more coal plants built in the state. There has been some opposition to the Governor's statement of heightened review or second review of the applications for the additional coal plants. So those groups that would like to see those coal plants built, as well as some groups representing workers that would be involved in building those plants have been not so much opposed to alternative energy per se, but opposed to the inability to build new coal fired power plants in the state. So it is not direct opposition to alternative energy, but I would call it more or less indirect opposition because they would like to see the plants built now and worry about the environmental effects later, which I don't think is the appropriate way to look at it at this point.
Q. I know you briefly touched on it, but you introduced a particular House Bill 4817, can you tell me a little bit about that bill?
A. I actually drafted all three of them. But I thought it would be a nice idea to share the other two bills with two other members. 4817 deals with the definitions of green chemistry and the incentives under the mega statute. I believe the bill that Representative Scripps took dealt with the Michigan Strategic Fund incentives. Then, I believe, the bill that I gave to Representative Kennedy dealt with the Centers for Energy Excellence. All three bills were drafted together, like I said, I thought it would be an effort to bring more people on board. I asked these other two representatives who have an interest in environmental issues and those whom I felt would have an interest in these issues. I asked them if they would take the other two bills. So we did it as a package.
Q. I recently looked up the status of the bills and I see that they are at the Senate. What is your prediction of what will happen in the Michigan Senate?
A. My understanding is that oftentimes things get sent over to the Senate and no action is ever taken. So, the three of us wrote letters to Senator Sanborn requesting formal hearing on the bills in his committee. We are also trying to have some of the groups that were very interested in this legislation like the environmental community, as well as the business community, because I think that is an important piece. It is not just about diversifying the economy, and not just about sustainability, but it is actually doing both at the same time. To me it was important to tell both pieces of that story together so that you don't have to sacrifice sustainability and environmental concerns for jobs and vice versa. Often times you see these two interest groups clashing.
We need jobs, we need a clean environment. In this situation, you actually see the job creation end of it and the environmental side of it forcefully moving in the same direction. So my strategy is to get both of those groups, the business community, as well as the environmental community, to exert pressure on Senator Sanborn to take the bills up and hold a hearing. Hopefully, that will happen.
Q. I see the bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Economic Development and Regulatory Reform on May 21, 2009. Do you feel comfortable with that?
A. Yes, yes, that is the right committee for it to be in, absolutely. They are the committee that deals with what I would call new and emerging technologies. They are the committee that is very comfortable dealing with issues pertaining to economic development. That is first and foremost what these bills are about, that economic development; good economic development principles as well as environmental justice are not mutually exclusive. They actually can go hand in hand. So that is definitely the right committee for these bills. I was pleased that they were referred to that committee. Most definitely.
Q. In the upcoming future with the House and on your committee, what do you hope to do, what are you working on or look forward to do in the future legislation on green energy in general?
A. What I would like the focus on is continuing to look for ways that we can create incentives.
My particular interest is economic development and job creation with an eye toward how we can grow these sectors like wind manufacturing. We have got some wonderful companies here in Michigan that are looking to use their expertise in advance manufacturing to now manufacture the components for wind turbines and be the supplier for the entire world. We have two companies in Michigan that are leaders in components for solar panels, Hemlock Semiconductor and United Solar Ovonic. Creating an environment where we can grow that sector as well. We may not have the most sun, but we can certainly lead the country, if not the world, in making the components for the solar panels of the world.
Advanced battery manufacturing, that is another area, because as we increase our reliance on renewable energy, we have got to work out the details of how to store and how to transport it. We can penetrate that market as well, in terms of advanced battery; smaller, smarter batteries that can store this energy for use at a later date. Or very smart sophisticated transport systems, the green power express that people are talking about, the smart grid, and how we can transport energy from the wind manufacturing regions in the central western states to the east power consuming states. With our expertise in manufacturing we brought the world the automobile, with our capability in engineering and problem solving we can be a player in the alternative energy sector as broad as it can be. In doing so, we can in time diversify our economy.
But the thing to remember is it takes time. The auto industry was not built over night. It began with an idea, it began with a patent, and then history of how you develop technology unfolded over a long period of time. People are accustomed to seeing things happen over night. They think that you have a great idea and suddenly you are employing thousands of people. But that is not how the auto industry grew, and that is not going to be how additional industries are going to develop. It takes time, and it takes patience. And the seeds have to be planted and nurtured for that to happen. The problem is that people are in crisis now, and they want to see change immediately.
I would suggest that an important component of our economic diversification is going to be a shift in the way people are educated and the areas that they go into. The types of jobs in the alternative energy sector have been shown to be much less based on the jobs requiring physical effort and much more based on knowledge and a knowledge skill set. So it takes time to re educate your work force. But I think those are the seeds that we have to plant.
Q. So, do you see this emerging as a big part of Michigan's economy in the future?
A. Absolutely! Absolutely! But not tomorrow. Maybe not even in five years. The patents that I wrote when I first started practicing 15 years ago are just now being commercialized. From idea to production to practice to commercialization is at a minimum a decade. We are at the beginning of that curve. And we have got a ways to go. But with patience and with the proper nurturing and the proper commitment, it will be a transformative moment for the economy in this state just the way the automotive was. I do believe that.
Q. Within your term that you are currently serving, what do you hope to accomplish?
A. I would love to see the green chemistry package on the Governor's desk for my first term.
I would like to continue doing research and exploring ways that we can assist small businesses to get a foothold in the state because small businesses properly nurtured will grow to be mid and large sized businesses. So that is another area that I am very interested in; ways that the state can assist the location and growth of small start up businesses. We have a well of great ideas, but we tend to export them to other states. So I would like to look at ways that we, as a state, can keep our research coming out of our research universities in the State of Michigan to get a foothold and grow into mid and large size businesses.
Q. So with the Obama Administration and the stimulus bill that was recently passed, has that been helping green energy in any way in Michigan?
A. Insofar as the component pertaining energy efficiency projects, the stimulus dollars were in large part used to get people back to work. So the money that is funding the community development block grant program which had been currently unfunded is going to entitlement communities directly for energy efficiency retrofits. Non-entitlement communities will be going to the smaller communities on a competitive grant basis through the state's energy office. Some stimulus dollars are going directly to, efficiency programs. It is not alternative energy, but it is a component certainly of green energy because they often times say that the most cost effective energy is the energy that you save. Certainly, we know that in many of our older buildings we are dissipating energy at an alarming rate. So those dollars going to efficiency, something as simple as weather stripping windows, new insulation of our older state and municipal buildings, that is direct stimulus dollars going to this area.
Q. Is there any thing else that you want to add?
A. These are certainly tough times. I mean, I hear that over and over again. I moved to Michigan in 1992. So my perspective does not go back to the recession that people talk about of 1980 and how the auto industry always came out of it. I grew up in Alabama, and Alabama was a state founded on steel. And in 1960s and the ‘70s the steel mills closed and the state went through a crisis not that much different than what Michigan is going through. On a smaller scale, because Alabama was among a number of steel producing states, it was not their exclusive industry, but it had a near devastating effect on the state when the final steel mill closed. The state at that time made a commitment as a means of economic survival of diversifying the economy to health care and they built a research university. And that is how my family moved to Alabama. My father took a position at the University of Alabama, and that was in the '70s.
Q. Any last things that you would like to say?
A. The final point is that in transitioning away from steel, now the university and all of the outgrowth from that, the health care industry is the largest employer in the state. And it raised the whole economy and it had an enormous spillover, and it boosted the entire economy. Meaningful economic development, transformative economic development can occur, but it doesn't happen overnight. There is no way to short circuit the process. The seeds have to be planted, the technologies have to be nurtured. I believe that is what we are doing now. We are selecting emerging technologies that we as a state have shown a propensity to excel in. Those areas are advanced manufacturing, alternative energy, and life sciences. We passed a constitutional amendment to finally allow for embryonic stem cell research in the State of Michigan. We have always been a leader in the life sciences, but our prohibition against embryonic stem cell research was crippling us. Now with the Obama Administration reversing the presidential restriction on funds to this type of research, federal moneys are flowing to the state, and that has been an enormous job creator. People are not talking about it, but the University of Michigan is investing over $18 million in building a new facility specifically for research in embryonic stem cell research. So that's an area where we can excel and people are willing to work building those buildings, refurbishing those labs, not to mention the researchers that we can attract in this area. That is a cutting edge area, that is an emerging area.
Other countries have accelerated their efforts in that area and we have got, as a country, some catch up work to do. As a state we can engage in this kind of research, the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and alternative energy. We have an enormous amount of capacity and depth in these areas. We can excel in these areas, and these are the areas that we as a state need to focus on. But people also need to understand that to replace an industry like the auto industry is a long term process. In the auto industry when a plant shuts down, you are talking about hundreds of thousands of jobs that are lost. The problem is in the enormity of the retraction in the auto industry right now. So when we attract a job in the alternative energy area it might employ 100 people. At any other time that would be very exciting. But coupled with a plant closing that is taking down 5,000 people, it loses something in the translation because people are focusing on the losses. But we are making gains slowly, and in time I believe that the investment that we make in these other areas will pay off. But it is going to take time.
Thank you very much for your time Representative Cogen Lipton.
For more information about State Representative Ellen Cogen Lipton, visit her web page at: