Michigan lawmakers look at more solar panels for homeowners, businesses

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Image: U.S. Department of Energy.

By Kristia Potsema
Capital News Service

Solar rooftop programs have been growing in Michigan, but they’ve hit a cap on customer participation.

A recent bill to eliminate the cap would make it easier for businesses and homeowners to participate in such programs where they can install solar panels and connect them to the energy grid, according to Tim Minotas, the legislative and political coordinator for the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club.

According to Minotas, solar rooftops often create more energy than the individual business or household needs, and “any excess energy that these solar systems create can be sold back to the grid for credit,” he said.

Michigan ranks among the top 10 states in total energy consumption and 30th in electricity use per capita, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

But solar power provides only 0.3% of Michigan’s electricity, the Solar Energy Industries Association says.

The proposal pending in the House Energy Committee would create more solar industry jobs in Michigan and benefit the environment, Minotas said.

Rep. Gregory Markkanen, R-Hancock, is the lead sponsor and vice chair of the committee. Cosponsors include Reps. John Roth, R-Traverse City, Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, John Damoose, R-Harbor Springs, Ken Borton, R-Gaylord, and Michele Hoitenga, R-Cadillac.

Current state law caps solar energy that utility companies must take from customers in their grid at 1% of the utility’s average peak load for the preceding five years.

That cap creates uncertainty for the future of Michigan’s solar industry, Minotas said.

“Once the utilities have met the cap, which many have, there’s nothing in Michigan law that says they have to hook more people up to the program,” Minotas said.

According to cosponsor Roth, utilities are wary of the solar rooftop program because it cuts into their profits.

“Right now, electric companies don’t want to let in too much power from people producing it on their own,” he said. “They want to control most of it themselves.”

“Unfortunately for the electric companies, we need to be able to allow people to produce more energy and contribute to the grid,” Roth said.

For example, Minotas said the Upper Peninsula Power Co. has hit its cap twice. The utility voluntarily extended it once and already hit the cap again, and there’s no guarantee it will be extended again, he said.

He said Consumers Energy reached its cap and DTE Energy is close to doing the same.

“The cap threatens the solar industry and the jobs provided by it because people cannot participate in the program, which means they won’t be putting up solar panels,” Minotas said.

Minotas said that the cap was written into the original 2008 law because of the novelty and uncertainty of solar panel systems at the time.

“Now we have a lot of certainty, and it’s become a very popular program,” Minotas said. “There’s just a lot more engineering and economic information on the program as well.”

Andrea Klooster installed solar rooftops on both her Ann Arbor residence and Jackson residence last year.

“Anytime the sun is shining we’re not pulling anything from the grid, we’re actually sending extra energy to the grid,” Klooster said.

Klooster said installing a solar rooftop was an investment for her family. She says it will take seven to nine years for their energy bill savings to cancel out the cost of the panels.

“Once you pay off the panels, you’re not paying for electricity any more so it’s all savings,” she said.

According to Klooster, solar rooftops generate the most energy in the warmer months.

Even comparing March to February, “we’re producing so much more electricity,” she said. “We’re really excited to see what this looks like in the summer.”

Klooster said her family gets “credits” towards their energy bill when they produce extra energy for the grid.

“DTE gives us credits for the extra that we produce during the day, and then we can use those credits at night or during the winter,” she said.

Klooster says her family is already saving money.

“Last month we had about $30 in credit that came off our bill, and since we’re using our own energy first, our bill is already lower,” she said. “Solar is just a no-brainer.”

According to Minotas, there are around 5,000 solar industry jobs in Michigan.

Encouraging more people to install rooftop solar panels will also lower energy bills for other customers “because it makes the grid more resilient by shaving peak demand,” he said.

“During peak times, utility companies don’t have to turn on extra power plants because they are taking the excess energy from the solar providers.”

According to Minotas, the proposed legislation would also help the environment.

“Solar energy is clean energy. You’re not relying on fossil fuels, so that means cleaner air, cleaner water,” he said. “Solar energy is zero emission energy, and users are not producing any carbon emissions.”

Roth predicted that the final bill will be a compromise between the 1% cap and unlimited distributed generation.

“I don’t see a total elimination of the cap,” Roth said. “There needs to be a bigger cap, whatever that is — 5%, 10%, 25%. A gradual increasing of the cap is probably the compromise that’s going to happen.”

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