The East Lansing Community Solar Park. The park went online in 2019 and was built on top of a retired landfill at Burcham Park. | Kyle Davidson
Michigan House and Senate members are continuing a bipartisan push this session to allow communities to generate their own energy while continuing to pursue changes to the state’s energy policies.
While legislators have introduced — and reintroduced — a myriad of bipartisan solar energy bills over the past decade, solar energy is receiving more attention as Democratic lawmakers push to meet goals outlined in Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan and address issues like high energy bills and mass power outages.
With investment in solar energy set to outpace investment in oil production on an international scale, lawmakers in the state Senate have introduced policies to guide Michigan’s transition to a 100% clean energy standard that includes nuclear energy.
“We know our communities have been asking us to take action. They want us to be bold,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) said at a press conference last month centered on Michigan’s renewable energy efforts. “We’re excited that within our state Senate caucus that we had significant support to bring some of these ideas forward.”
In early March, state Sens. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan) reintroduced bills that would allow communities to create community solar projects, installing solar panels in available spaces and sharing the generated energy with members throughout the community.
“When you start to look at a way to allow consumers to take some control back for themselves, it empowers them and it empowers our economy. And so I want to do what I can to promote that,” McBroom said.
Senate Bill 152, introduced by McBroom, and Senate Bill 153, introduced by Irwin, would allow communities to create and finance community solar projects of up to 5 megawatts in capacity, and would give community members who subscribe to the project a credit on their energy bill for the electricity generated by the solar panels.
Carlo Cavallaro, Midwest regional director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access, said community solar projects are not possible without a policy framework to back them up.
In order to function, these programs need enabling legislation, access to the billing system so community members can receive credits on their bill for the energy they generate, and these solar energy systems need to be connected to a utility company’s grid, Cavallaro said.
Additionally, when a third party connects a community solar project to the grid, that company is paying for the interconnection. This means the solar developer may need to pay for upgrades to energy substations or additional power lines, which would benefit other customers on the same energy grid, Cavallaro said.
While community solar projects that are independently owned and subscribed to by community members are not currently permitted in the state, these projects would expand solar energy access to individuals who may not have access due to income or the placement of their home, said Nicholas Occhipinti, state government affairs director for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
From renters who may not have permission from their landlord to install a rooftop solar array to individuals whose homes are shaded by trees, community solar programs allow individuals to participate in the clean energy future in a way that drives down energy costs, Occhipinti said.
Community solar programs are also very adaptable in terms of where you place them, Cavallaro said. Arrays could be installed on large rooftops, farm fields, or on brownfields, land that has been abandoned or is underused due to pollution.
Additionally, SB 152 would ensure 30% of the energy generated by a community solar facility goes to low-income households and low-income service organizations.
One consideration while crafting these policies was how to widely spread the benefits of community solar across the state, including individuals with less resources, Irwin said.
As Michigan works to update its energy grid with new clean energy options, environmental justice advocates have stressed the importance of ensuring no community is left behind.
Low-income communities and communities of color often see the greatest impacts from climate-change and pollution. As Michigan works to create a clean energy future, consumer empowerment and human empowerment must be at the center of these efforts, said Max Kendall, an environmental justice justice organizer for Michigan United.
“We cannot allow certain people to be sacrificed to create a better future for the few. We all should be able to participate in clean energy evolution,” Kendall said.
While community solar projects would support low-income individuals, these programs could also help combat high energy prices across the state.
In March, Michigan residents paid an average of about 18 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Compared to the rest of the U.S., Michigan paid the 12th highest rate for energy, paying more than the national average of 15.85 cents per kilowatt hour.
Rates in the Upper Peninsula are especially high, with some residents paying close to 30 cents per kilowatt hour, McBroom said.
McBroom has worked with Michigan’s solar energy policy since his first term in the House beginning in 2011. He has supported efforts to give Michiganders the opportunity to generate their own electricity, including a 2019 bill which would have eliminated Michigan’s cap on distributed energy generation, considered a major barrier for citizens looking to install rooftop solar panels.
“You don’t have to believe that petroleum is killing the world to support people having the freedom to generate their own power,” McBroom said. “I think the idea that our energy bills are too high and too expensive cuts across party lines.”
Allowing communities to establish their own solar grids could help municipalities save on energy costs, which saves tax dollars, and would provide communities the opportunity to operate independently if there are issues with the energy grid at large, McBroom said.
This legislation would also create opportunities for solar energy installers and manufacturers, McBroom said.
Communities could also opt to share ownership with independent solar developers, promoting competition into clean energy production, Occhipinti said.
“Increased competition would lead to overall lower prices, but it’s also about who owns the capital investment and to whom those returns are delivered,” Occhipinti said.
“When a subscriber has a small ownership stake in that community solar system, they’re able to capture more of the overall value of that project. And so, that independent ownership, that subscription-based ownership is what transfers the opportunity and value and shares it with more folks,” he said.
As lawmakers push for a transition to 100% clean energy by 2035, renewable energy supporters argue the pivot to renewable energy would create numerous jobs building and installing equipment like solar arrays.
As part of this funding, there is an upcoming $7 billion competitive program targeted toward supporting rooftop and community solar projects in low-income communities, Occhipinti said.
Alongside the bills introduced by Irwin and McBroom in the Senate, Reps. Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids) and John Roth (R-Traverse City) introduced a community solar package in the House. While Hood’s bill, House Bill 4464, mirrors the language of McBroom’s Senate Bill 152, Hood’s version includes additional language to make sure the state takes full advantage of funding provided by the Inflation Reduction Act.
As the Whitmer administration anticipates more federal funding within the year, particularly funding surrounding low-income communities and communities facing environmental injustice, Hood said she and her colleagues want to make sure the state’s efforts are designed to place citizens at the center of the work.
However, Hood also wants to ensure this program also involves industrial players and commercial entities.
“We need all those people to achieve our climate goals,” Hood said.
While legislators and solar energy advocates have emphasized the benefits these projects can provide for communities, Community Solar has been a historically hard sell for Michigan’s big utility companies.
In an emailed statement, Brian Wheeler, media relations manager for Consumers Energy called this legislation unnecessary citing the company’s own solar energy efforts.
“From our perspective, this new legislation is not necessary and would lead to higher rates by requiring all utility customers to purchase power from unregulated third-party developments at inflated prices,” Wheeler said.
While DTE did not comment on the bills, spokesperson Peter Terns said DTE operates the largest community solar project in the state where customers can enroll without the need to invest in, or be located near a solar installation.
However, third-party solar energy generators would be regulated by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC), the same entity that oversees large utilities like DTE and Consumers Energy, Cavallaro said.
McBroom called the Consumers Energy statement ironic, criticizing large energy companies for speaking up about costs to customers while continually asking the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to approve rate increases.
“It’s just the continued irony of the large scale [energy companies] sounding like they’re very concerned about costs on consumers, and yet ask for rate increases every year,” McBroom said.
While energy companies downplay the role homeowners play in their business when arguing their rate cases, it becomes a big deal when customers start discussing pulling out and getting freedom from having to purchase their power from the utilities, McBroom said.
“The contradictions, and the attempt to have it both ways from the big utility companies, all I can do is laugh because I’ve heard it over and over and over again from them,” McBroom said.
However, Hood is hopeful she can bring the utilities onboard.
While negotiating with Consumers Energy, Hood said she was able to raise some strong arguments for the company to support community solar. These companies need developers as Michigan works to meet its healthy climate plan goals, and community solar developers are experienced, using union skilled tradespeople, she said.
As Michigan works to meet clean energy and infrastructure goals and Consumers works to meet its own goal of developing 8,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar by 2040, it’s an all hands on deck moment, Hood said. With a few adaptations to the bill package, lawmakers could bring the utilities on board to create strategic partnerships and a pipeline of talent to help meet clean energy goals.
Looking to the bigger picture, Michigan’s large energy companies need to begin to transition into energy managers rather than energy producers, Hood said. While there isn’t a clear pathway for this transition, conversations on community solar and other related bills are conversations on how utilities can work to become significant energy grid managers.
“It is our job to have these discussions and work through this tension to build a brighter future for Michigan,” Hood said. “That’s the case for Consumers Energy and DTE as much as it is for me and for, you know, my counterparts in the Senate and the governor of the state and the Michigan Public Service Commission,” Hood said.
While community solar provides opportunities for Michiganders to support clean energy efforts and save money on their electrical bills, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
As lawmakers work to pass efforts supporting community solar efforts, other members of the Legislature are working on additional efforts to support solar energy in Michigan.
Irwin also introduced a bill (Senate Bill 362) that would remove the cap. Alongside Senate Bill 363 introduced by Sen. Rosemary Bayer (D-Beverly Hills), Irwin’s bill would also restore net-metering, requiring utilities to pay individuals generating excess electricity back at the same rate they charge their customers. In 2018, the state began applying an inflow/outflow tariff, where energy companies charge customers generating electricity for any power they use from the grid, while paying for their excess energy at a rate that subtracts energy transmission costs.
Reps. Cynthia Neeley (D-Flint) and Curtis VanderWall (R-Ludington) introduced House Bills 4317 and 4318, respectively, which would create a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes system for solar energy projects, including smaller incentives for development on brownfields and state-owned lands.
As part of the Senate’s bill package aimed at enabling Michigan’s transition to clean energy, Sen. Kristen McDonald Rivet (D-Bay City) introduced SB 277 which would allow farmers to rent out their land for solar energy production while maintaining farmland preservation standards.
But there has been pushback to solar energy in some communities.
Earlier this year, the Howell-based Michigan Citizens for the Protection of Farmland submitted a ballot proposal for consideration by the Board of State Canvassers that would ban the installation of large, utility-scale solar energy projects on agricultural-zoned land, with an exception for land owners installing solar panels to power their homes, farms or businesses. In a draft of the proposed ballot measure, the organization cited environmental and economic concerns in their opposition to solar energy projects on farmland.
In a statement, the Michigan League of Conservation Voters called the proposal “misleading and flawed,” and reactivated its ballot committee, Our Water, Our Democracy, in opposition to the measure.
“Renewable energy is a financial win for farmers, businesses and residents in rural communities across Michigan with several wind and solar projects up and running for more than a decade. Banning utility-scale solar projects in rural communities moves the state in the wrong direction,”said Lisa Wozniak, the league’s executive director. “The proposed petition summary is flawed, misleading and would do a disservice to voters who support Michigan’s transition to clean, renewable energy.”
According to a report from MLive, Michigan Citizens for the Protection of Farmland withdrew its ballot proposal for revision after the state Board of Canvassers shared concerns that the proposal language would make existing projects illegal if it became law.
Rather than limiting local control over solar projects, Hood said the best way to work past the opposition to solar energy is by accelerating projects where they are welcome in order to showcase the benefits solar energy can provide for a community.
Lawmakers are also working to create an incentive package within the state budget to encourage communities to buy into solar energy.
“When we show that these uses are compatible, and that it provides meaningful benefits to communities, then I believe we’ll begin to erode some of those concerns in more rural spaces,” Hood said.
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