Pollinator-friendly wildflowers and other native plants in the East Lansing Community Solar Park provide food and habitats for bees, insects and birds alongside other environmental benefits, June 26, 2023 | Kyle Davidson
State Rep. Penelope Tsernoglou (D-East Lansing) on Monday gathered with solar energy advocates outside of the East Lansing Community Solar Park on Monday to push for support on bills that would allow Michiganders to create community solar energy projects.
Introduced by State Sens. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), Senate Bills 152 and 153 would allow Michigan communities to create and finance community solar projects of up to 5 megawatts in capacity, providing community members who subscribe to the project with a credit on their energy bills for the power generated by the solar panels.
Rep. Rachel Hood introduced another effort in the House — House Bill 4464 — which mirrors the language of Senate Bill 152, but includes additional language to leverage federal funds provided by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022. Tsernoglou serves as one of the bill’s cosponsors.
“Last year, with the passage of President Biden’s clean energy plan $7 billion of federal funds were set aside for the expansion of community solar projects across the nation,” Tsernoglou said. “The hurdles in Congress have been cleared and the money is ready to be invested. Now it is time for the state legislature to act to ensure this historic investment is made here at home.”
If passed, House Bill 4464 would expedite review and approval for community solar programs while maximizing Michigan’s participation in the Inflation Reduction Act and clean energy plan of 2022.
While solar energy has a history of bipartisan support in Michigan, previous legislation — including community solar efforts — have failed to pass.
“We need more rooftop solar, and we need more large-scale solar and how you do that is will. It isn’t about solar resource. We have plenty of solar resource in the state to make solar work. It’s about political will, said John Kinch, the executive director of Michigan Energy Options, a nonprofit which worked to establish the East Lansing Community Solar Park in partnership with Pivot Energy and the Lansing Board of Water and Light.
“I have been part of the bills before with community solar. I testified in front of the Energy Committee,” Kinch said. “I think this is the year that we’re going to have a better chance of getting it passed.”
While Michigan has seven or eight community solar projects, Minnesota, — which has community solar legislation in place — has 750 to 800 projects, Kinch said.
“Enabling policy makes all the difference in the world,” Kinch said.
While Tsernoglou discussed the opportunities presented by the community solar bills, environmental advocates discussed how clean energy policies and resources can benefit the environment and the economy alongside health and equity.
Derrell Slaughter, a Michigan climate and clean energy advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, recounted Michigan’s progress in transition to clean energy sources.
“Just locally here in the Lansing area, our Lansing Board of Water and Light went from burning 1.2 million tons of coal a year to burning absolutely zero coal today. Consumers Energy, the second largest utility in the entire state will be completely coal free by 2025,” Slaughter said.
While people once thought we could never get to this point, we’re seeing that transition happen, Slaughter said.
This transition has benefitted the state, Slaughter said, with Michigan’s clean energy economy employing more than 119,000 individuals in 2022. However, Michigan needs to move even faster in order to be competitive and capitalize on the Biden administration’s investments in clean energy, Slaughter said.
While Biden’s clean energy plan and federal regulations on coal plants are accelerating the transition to clean energy, Michigan needs to update its energy landscape and laws to take advantage of clean energy opportunities moving forward, Slaughter said.
Alongside bills supporting community solar, the state Senate has also introduced a package of bills intended to transition Michigan to 100% clean energy by 2035, mirroring Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s MI Healthy Climate Plan.
In addition to setting a 100% clean energy standard, the package also includes an effort to expand the purview of the Michigan Public Safety Commission, which regulates electrical and telecommunication companies in the state.
“The passage of these bills will also be an opportunity to right some of those historic wrongs to make our energy system more equitable for all folks across the state,” Slaughter said.
Senate Bill 152 and House Bill 4464 both include provisions to ensure 30% of the energy generated by a community solar project goes to low-income households and low-income service organizations.
By allowing the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to consider equity in its regulation process, it can address electrical availability and rate costs in communities impacted by environmental injustice, said Sen. Sue Shink (D-Northville) in a previous interview with the Advance.
These communities are often made up of higher proportions of people of color and people who are struggling economically, Shink said. These residents often suffer the worst effects of pollution from power generation and are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.
“Climate change has impacted communities across our state and the impacts are only going to get worse. From poor air quality due to wildfires to massive flooding from extreme storms that are happening more often. One proven way we can reduce pollution and address climate change is by transitioning our energy sources to clean renewable energy,” said Logan Vorce, the state government affairs legislative aide for the Michigan League of Conservation Voters.
“Community solar projects like the one behind me allow neighborhoods to invest in their local energy projects and buy in to reduce their energy costs,” Vorce said.
Under the current state law, Michigan residents who want to invest in community solar are limited in their options if they live in the territory of DTE or Consumers Energy, Vorce said.
Although independently owned community solar projects are not currently permitted in the state, advocates say these projects can help expand access to solar energy.
Slaughter said it’s important to start democratizing the energy system and rooftop and community solar each provide real benefits. Community Solar setups help to spread out opportunities for people to take advantage of renewable energy, he said.
Kinch said these types of projects take up a small amount of real estate and can be tucked into areas around communities including polluted brownfields and former landfills.
With the federal resource available and energy policies working their way through the legislature, Vorce said the state has a moment like never before to improve Michigan’s electrical reliability, lower electricity bills and triple down on a sustainable pathway forward.
“We are calling on the members of the legislature to pass these important bills. Investing in clean energy, creating good jobs in this growing sector of the economy, lowering energy bills; these are kitchen table issues.” Vorce said.
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