The Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas across the Straits of Mackinac.
The Mackinac Bridge connects Michigan's Upper and Lower peninsulas across the Straits of Mackinac. Credit: Justin Billau / Flickr / Creative Commons

The following commentary was written by Laura Sherman, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, a trade organization of more than 120 advanced energy companies focused on improving the policy landscape for the advanced energy industry in Michigan. See our commentary guidelines for more information.

One of the most important proposals to accelerate Michigan’s standing in advanced mobility technology came this week. A coalition of 27 organizations (including the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council) that work in alternative fuel and electric vehicle (EV) drivetrain manufacturing, EV charging stations, environmental and health advocacy, electricity transmission and more called upon Gov. Whitmer and other Michigan lawmakers to use $600 million in federal funds to invest in fleets of electric and alternative fuels vehicles and related infrastructure.

The full proposal from the MI Clean Future coalition laid out the urgency: “If Michigan is going to continue to compete on a global stage, we need to make substantial investments in our automotive and mobility workforce, prepare our infrastructure to meet 21st-century mobility demands, and headway on replacing the most polluting vehicles on the road.” The proposal then mentions Ford’s recent decision to build new EV supply chain plants in Tennessee and Kentucky, but not Michigan due to a lack of shovel-ready sites.

Ford’s move is just one setback in the context of a longer-term trend of growth in innovative, well-paying jobs. Michigan is transitioning to this new economy of advanced energy—which includes design, manufacturing and project development of low-carbon technologies like EVs but also wind turbines, solar panels, energy efficiency retrofits, batteries, energy management software and more—with overwhelmingly positive results.

But to keep the results coming, we also need to seize upon proposals like the $600 million investment described above. Michigan should respond to setbacks by using opportunities—like the funds from pending federal infrastructure and clean energy legislation—to build on the conditions that allowed the advanced energy industry to blossom here in the first place.

Michigan ranks second in the nation, behind only California, for the number of jobs in the “clean vehicle” sector, including EV, hybrid and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, as tracked by E2’s Clean Jobs Midwest report, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data. But it is more than just automotive industry jobs. Michigan also ranks 6th among the 50 states, ahead of more populous states like Ohio and Pennsylvania, for the number of jobs in clean energy.

Michigan had 125,000 of these clean energy jobs pre-pandemic, a 41% increase from 2015, meaning clean energy jobs were growing significantly faster than the rest of the state’s economy. Like most industries, clean energy employment took a hit during the pandemic, but it also has bounced back better than most—jobs related to designing, manufacturing and serving the supply chain of EVs in Michigan actually grew 3% overall last year despite the recession, according to E2’s report. Clean energy jobs also pay wages well above the national median.

Summing up exactly what these jobs are is tough because they are so integrated throughout all parts of the state. Wind and solar project developers are working in every county in the state, for example. Companies working to create a new energy future in the state cover a wide range: There are manufacturers of wind turbine towers that stand nearly 300 feet tall. Others design phone apps that allow users to remotely control lights and appliances at their homes to maximize efficiency and energy bill savings. Others are developers of devices that allow EVs to quickly charge up.

The reasons that these companies choose Michigan are as diverse as the companies themselves, but many reasons trace back to the infrastructure we have here: both physical infrastructure like industrial spaces, and more intangible infrastructure like a network of the best engineering talent in the country, driven in large part by Michigan’s top-tier universities.

One of the best ways, therefore, to keep growing these industries and not lose out on jobs to other states is to invest more in the state’s infrastructure, as well as infrastructure specifically tailored to advanced energy. That means building out an EV charging network, launching research programs at universities that plant the seeds for clean tech startups, expanding workforce training and modernizing our electric grid to reduce the frequency of power outages, to name a few examples.

Michigan is well on its way toward a future with a strong advanced energy economy, but infrastructure needs to grow along with that economy to sustain it. The pending infrastructure and clean energy legislation in Washington can make Michigan companies and Michiganders better positioned to seize the possibilities and promises of this future.