Column: Community solar investments are a way out of outages during an era of climate change

September 15, 2021 9:44 am

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In the DTE service area, four major power outages in July and August cumulatively affected over 900,000 customers, some of whom lost power — and with it, groceries, access to medical devices and more — multiple times over. 

The failure of DTE Energy to provide reliable power, while customers pay some of the highest utility bills in the country, is ringing the alarm bells of a broken system. To get the utility service we all deserve, Michigan should seize the opportunity to invest infrastructure dollars in a 21st century renewable energy power system. 

Between 2015 and 2019, DTE raised its annual rate base by $774 million, justifying the increases in part by promising to invest in grid “hardening”, improvements like pole replacement and tree trimming that can reduce storm impacts. But the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) doesn’t require DTE to demonstrate that the increased rate base actually improved reliability. And the truth is, older communities like Detroit and the inner-ring suburbs are served by an antiquated 4.8kV grid that needs to be wholly replaced — not just targeted for tree trimming. By comparison, outer suburbs are served by a newer and more robust 8.3 kV or 13.2 kV grid. 

Adding insult to injury, DTE recently filed for an 11% rate hike despite reaping windfall revenues during the pandemic, leading Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to intervene on ratepayers’ behalf, calling the proposed rate hikes “excessive and unreasonable.”

Rate hikes and long power outages hit low-income families in our region particularly hard. New research from the University of Michigan suggests that the impacts are compounded: Within the city of Detroit, households who struggle most to pay their energy bills also tend to get hit with longer and more frequent outages, and suffer more severe downstream effects like high heat exposure

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s August Power Outages Feedback form is now live online. Residents and business owners who experienced an extended power outage are encouraged to fill out the form, which collects information including the resident’s utility company, how long the outage lasted and the financial loss suffered.

No matter our income or ZIP code, we all deserve affordable, reliable energy. To make that a reality in a changing climate, Michigan must invest strategically in energy assets that we can count on to improve reliability — and which advance climate resilience and affordability at the same time. 

We should spend federal infrastructure money on renovating our grids with smaller, more resilient microgrids paired with rooftop and community solar, and on deep energy-efficiency retrofits — energy-saving home repairs like roof repair and insulation — that are targeted to households with the most unaffordable bills. 

The MPSC and Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) could provide technical and financial support to municipalities to exit their utility lighting contracts, and light our streets instead with cheaper, renewable energy. We could provide more funds and support for municipal buildings and schools to go solar, reducing costs and increasing their resilience as community support centers. Distributed renewable energy generation, like microgrids coupled with community solar, have the added cost benefit of reducing the need to replace the full extent of our current high-voltage transmission and distribution lines.

As billions of dollars are expected to pour into Michigan from the Biden Infrastructure Package, Michigan residents — not DTE or Consumers Energy shareholders — should be deciding how to invest them. 

This is a no-brainer: Invest in renewable energy for homes and businesses; beat back climate change; and provide cheaper, more reliable grid infrastructure at the local level. 

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Bridget Saunders Vial
Bridget Saunders Vial

Bridget Saunders Vial is the Energy Democracy Organizer at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.