Solar power changes cause critics to sizzle

By CASEY HULL
Capital News Service

LANSING — A new order by the Public Service Commission (PSC) will reduce savings for homes deciding to generate electricity from solar energy, according to some lawmakers.

And that means less savings and reduced incentives for anyone hoping to save money by adding solar panels to their home.

The solar power community is upset by the change and some legislators are attempting to reverse the effect of the ruling.

Under the order, utility companies will have to pay solar households only the wholesale cost for the energy they produce. Utilities must pay a household or small business for putting energy into their grid. Consumers Energy and DTE Energy are the two largest servicers of solar households in the state.

Most individuals generating their own energy are still connected to the power grid as a backup source of electricity for cloudy days and at night. During the day, excess electricity flows into the grid and solar system owners are credited for that energy by their utility.

Under the new system, the energy going into a household from a utility company will cost the full rate. Energy from the solar household going into the energy grid will be paid at a lower wholesale rate.

PSC staff estimate that solar households will be paid about 10 cents a kilowatt hour. At that rate it would take solar households an additional two to three years, or about 33 percent longer than with current rates, to cover the cost of installing solar panels.

The new policy begins on June 1 and affects only homes and businesses that install new solar systems. Existing contracts will remain valid and unchanged for up to 10 years.

Legislation in the House Energy Policy Committee would repeal any grid charge and block the changes approved by the PSC.

“They have not taken the time to properly weigh the pros and cons of solar energy and because of that, they have come up with a rate that is lopsided,” said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, one of the sponsors. “That’s a big reason we introduced the bills.”

The co-sponsors include Reps. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, and Tom Barrett, R-Potterville.

The PSC was directed to create the new system by a state energy law in 2016. The commission  was told to develop a new metering program that allows energy companies to make money on their services and that reflects a customer’s fair and equitable use of the grid, said Sally Talberg, the chair of the PSC.

“The commission looks forward to working with stakeholders who may propose refinements or new data and with the Legislature if it seeks to pursue a different approach,” she said.

Rabhi said the proposed metering program fails to accomplish what the Legislature ordered.

“In the legislation that created the grid tariff, it was pretty clear that the Public Service Commission had to take into account the benefits that solar brings to the grid,” such as economic and environmental benefits, Rabhi said.

“Then there are the more tangible things such as providing energy to the grid during the daytime when energy is needed most.”

“The real problem is that they have put into place an interim rate. They have changed the rate in such a way that the benefits of solar are not factored in,” Rahbi said.

Utility companies say that solar households should be paid for the electricity they produce at an equal price to large-scale utilities.

Brian Wheeler, the senior public information director for Consumers Energy, said, “If you want to look at a home with a solar array like a power plant, they both serve as power generators and both will receive the wholesale rate moving forward.”

Like a home in this example, a power plant draws energy from the grid to operate, he said. And just like a solar home, it generates more energy to put back in the grid.

“Just like a power plant, anyone’s home or a customer of ours, they’re paying the price that represents the cost of generating and then distributing energy throughout the grid,” Wheeler said.

John Sarver, a board member at the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, said, “Right now the rate is around 15 cents a kilowatt hour. We believe that metering, as it’s structured now, is fair.”

“There are benefits to when homeowners invest their own money in a solar system and put their excess production on the grid,” Sarver said.

One such benefit is that household solar arrays produce the most energy during the summer and can assist with increased demand on the energy grid by air conditioning units.

Sarver said he doesn’t believe that the smaller payments will have an extensive negative impact on new solar power users. “People will still buy systems even if the return on their investment is lower.”

An alternative to working with utility companies is to purchase batteries to store the generated power.

“If we’re not careful with new policies, we may be encouraging people to take a serious look at batteries and store the power on site, and that doesn’t help anybody,” Sarver said.

“The economics of going off the grid is debatable, but the technology is certainly there.”

State ramps up opioid response

By COLTON WOOD
Capital News Service

LANSING — Last October, President Donald Trump called the nation’s opioid crisis a public emergency.

Now, six months after his announcement, Michigan has taken more steps to strengthen the state’s battle against opioids.

“The news has definitely been reporting on the opioid crisis for a while now, and, yes, it continues,” said Monica Gonzalez-Walker, the clinical implementation and engagement manager of Michigan OPEN — the Michigan Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network.

Data published by the governor’s office says the number of opioid prescriptions dispensed has decreased by 10.7 percent since 2015. For the first time since 2011, the total number of controlled substance prescriptions dispensed in Michigan dropped to below 20 million.

“The decrease is a result of our partnerships and collective efforts to raise awareness among patients and health professionals,” said Shelly Edgerton, the director of the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. “We, along with our partners, will continue our targeted education and outreach efforts to fight back against this devastating public health crisis.”

In 2015, 10,833,681 opioid prescriptions were written in Michigan, contrasted with 6,670,989 in 2017.

“These figures are promising indicators for our continuing efforts against the opioid epidemic in Michigan,” Lt. Gov. Brian Calley said. That means “less potentially addictive opioids in our communities.”

Calley chaired the governor’s Prescription Drug and Opioid Abuse Task Force.

To continue that trend, he said there’s a need for “a conscientious approach to prescribing and dispensing while managing care for patients.”

Even before Trump’s announcement on the opioid crisis, Rep. Joseph Bellino Jr., R-Monroe, had introduced legislation to assist in Michigan’s battle against opioids.

“My district got opioids early — 10, 12 years ago,” he said. “Now, it’s everywhere in the United States. It’s affected my family — I lost a cousin. It affected my work. It affecting my community, my school. It’s hurt all of us.”

Last December, Gov. Rick Snyder signed Bellino’s bill that restricts the amount of opioid prescriptions given to children.

“My bill says if you’re a minor, you have to have your parent or guardian’s signature OK’ed for the doctor or provider to give you an opioid for pain, Bellino said.

Several other restrictions on opioids will be put into place later this year. On June 1, health care providers must be registered in the Mandatory Michigan Automated Prescription System before prescribing controlled substances.

As of July 1, doctors treating patients with acute pain won’t be able to prescribe more than a seven-day supply of an opioid within a seven-day period.

Partnership agreements help failing schools avoid closure

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — Thirty-eight of Michigan’s lowest-performing elementary and secondary schools are about to wrap up their first year under a partnership program created to save them from closure.

In 2017, the state’s School Reform Office announced that the schools, which had been in the bottom 5 percent for academic performance for three years in a row, were at risk of being shut down.

The Detroit Public Schools Community District had 16 schools in danger of being closed, while Pontiac, Benton Harbor, Saginaw and Kalamazoo all had multiple public schools on the original list.

Facing public backlash, the Department of Education instead chose to partner with those districts to improve academic performance.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest union of teachers and other school personnel, has “always preferred” finding an alternative to school closures, said David Crim, the MEA’s communications consultant.

“We were supportive a year and a half ago when [state Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Whiston] announced the creation of these partnerships, and we’re still supportive,” Crim said.

Under a partnership agreement, a district remains in control of its schools, with additional support from the department and local partners like colleges, community foundations and businesses.

That level of community involvement is crucial to the agreements’ — and the schools’ — success, said William Disessa of the Department of Education’s Office of Public and Governmental Affairs.

“The partnership agreements are designed to be positive and collaborative in nature,” Disessa said. “Working together, partnership districts and schools have a real opportunity to succeed.”

In late March, 21 districts entered discussions with a goal towards signing their own partnership agreements, including ones in Baldwin, Grand Rapids and Flint.

Of those 21, 16 are public charter schools. The MEA’s Crim said the union “railed against” that fact, saying it was proof of the state’s misguided investment in “failing for-profit charter schools.”

“We’re very concerned about the money we’re spending on corporate charter schools which end up on these partnership lists,” Crim said.

Improvement in state English/Language Arts and math test scores is a “common thread” among the partnership agreements, but every agreement is tailored to individual districts’ needs, said Dedrick Martin, the Education Department’s school reform officer.

“There could be a number of systemic issues, whether that’s getting enough certified teachers, changes to the curriculum or training that teachers need, instructional coaches, data systems — each district will have their own unique fingerprint on their partnership agreement,” Martin said.

Martin was hired as school reform officer in October 2017 and wasn’t involved with creating any of the current agreements. Since even the earliest adopters have yet to finish their first full year, he said it’s too soon to gauge the agreements’ success.

Seven districts signed partnership agreements last October, including Lansing Public Schools, which entered five schools into its agreement.

Three of Lansing’s schools — North Elementary, Woodcreek Achievement Center and Gardner International Academy — entered the agreements on an optional basis. That means the schools’ performance wasn’t poor enough to require a partnership agreement now, but was so low that they might require one in the future, Disessa said.

Lansing’s agreement provides assistance from the department, the Ingham Intermediate School District and 18 community groups like the Lansing Promise and the Capital Area College Access Network to meet the benchmarks.

Among many other benchmarks, Lansing’s schools must see a 5 percent increase in students who test at their grade level in reading and math by fall 2019, and reduce the number of suspensions by 20 percent by 2021.

For all participating districts, schools have 18 months to show improvement on “intermediate” goals. At that point they enter another 18-month review period to complete the agreement. Failure to meet their benchmarks puts districts right back where they were — facing closure.

Martin said closure isn’t off the table for schools that fail to meet their goals after three years. However, he indicated the department is taking a more “holistic” approach to these agreements, and may grant more time to districts that have shown significant — if not total — progress.

“If a person sets a goal of losing weight, and they want to lose 15 pounds in a month, do you tell them that they’re unsuccessful because they only lost 12?” Martin said. “No. They keep with the same program, and you give them a little more time to do it.”

Four-day school week not coming to a school near you

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING – Some states are moving toward a four-day school week but local districts in Michigan show no inclination to change their regular five-day school schedule, experts say.

“It’s a tough decision to make,” said Jennifer Smith, the director of government relations at the Michigan Association of School Boards.

Michigan requires districts to have at least a minimum number of school hours and days, Smith said. According to state law, K-12 public school instruction should run for at least 180 days and 1,098 hours each school year.

“They [the districts] need to figure out how to get 180 days included if they’re only doing a four-day week,” Smith said.

Whether to adopt the four-day week depends on districts and their community decisions, Smith said.

For rural districts, the four-day week can cut transportation costs, she said.

A couple of years ago, several districts in the state tried the four-day week but it didn’t work out, said Don Wotruba, the association’s executive director.

And parents aren’t particularly fond of the idea, Wotruba said.

Big Jackson in the Northwest Lower Peninsula and Republic-Michigamme in the Upper Peninsula’s Iron County are the only two districts in the state that operate on a four-day school week, according to the Department of Education.

“We’ve never had any complaints about not having school on Friday,” said Kashmir Aprile, the secretary of the Big Jackson Public Schools in Newaygo County. It’s one of the only K-5 districts in the state, and upper grade students attend school in Big Rapids.

“A lot of families love it [the four-day week] because it gives them a three-day weekend,” Aprile said. The extra day off is good for family reunions and recovery from the weekdays.

Teachers also benefit from the four-day week, she said. A three-day weekend is convenient because it gives them an extra day to better prepare for their classes.

The district runs its schools from Monday to Thursday and has one half-Friday a month to meet the required school hours.

The Republic-Michigamme district operates its schools from Tuesday to Friday, with one hour and 10 minutes longer each day to meet the state’s requirement and ensure that students receive the same amount of instructional time as in regular five-day week, according to the district.

The district said it’s saved more than  $1 million since the four-day school week started in the school year of 2004-05. The savings included electricity, water, heating fuel, gas and bus drivers’ wages.

The School Board Association’s Smith said the four-day school week should be a collaborative decision between a district and community.

If parents aren’t satisfied with the four-day decision, the district should weight other options, Smith said.

More students of color disciplined in Michigan

By GLORIA NZEKA
Capital News Service

LANSING — An analysis of the U.S. Department of Education’s national civil rights data shows widespread disparities in the way public schools discipline students of color and those with disabilities.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO), a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress, analyzed data for the school year 2013-14 and found that black students, boys and students with disabilities were disproportionately disciplined in K-12 public schools.

In Michigan, Agustin Arbulu, the executive director of the state Department of Civil Rights, said that the situation is similar to that in other states, and part of the reason is the low  percentage of teachers of color.

“Approximately 83 percent of teachers in public school settings are white, while the number of African-American teachers continue to decline — I think it’s about 6.5 percent. Hispanic teachers are somewhere around 7 percent,” Arbulu said.

The GAO study found that disparities were consistent regardless of the type of disciplinary action, level of school poverty or type of public school. Black students accounted for 15.5 percent of all students, but 39 percent of students suspended from school — an overrepresentation of about 23 percent.

Rodd Monts, the field director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said some of Michigan’s policies facilitated the strictness of disciplinary measures against Black and Hispanic students and those with disabilities.

“Our zero-tolerance policy and lack of alternative discipline strategies were primarily to blame,” Monts said.

Zero-tolerance is a policy that started with a 1994 gun-free schools law that requires schools that get federal aid to impose harsh punishment such as suspension or expulsion when students break certain rules.

In 2015. the ACLU, in partnership with other advocacy groups, conducted a study similar to the GAO’s. It collected data from 40 districts across the state and found that in many cases, suspensions and expulsions from suburban districts were more disproportionate than in other districts.

“I get a lot of complaints from suburban school districts and charter school districts,” said Monts.

Arbulu agreed and said that wealthier school districts, where 90-plus percent of students are white, have the greatest problem.

“We have seen that in the complaints that we have received, where students of color who go to school districts that are primarily white, file complaints based on racial discrimination claims,” he said. He added that school districts should develop space for dialogue so minority students can feel included.

The GAO report noted that disciplined students who get removed from the classroom are more likely to repeat a grade, drop out and get into the juvenile justice system. And that could create costs for society, like incarceration.

The ACLU’s findings, coupled with the efforts of other advocacy groups and people in education, law enforcement and the court system, prompted the Legislature to abolish the zero-tolerance policy. The change took effect last August.

Now, Monts said, schools must give greater consideration of the factors that lead to misconduct before suspending or expelling a student.

Arbulu said the vast percentage of teachers who are white may not be equipped to understand different cultural factors and socio-economic factors that many students of color come from.

“If you have 80 percent-plus teachers that are white, they’re coming from a totally different perspective. They’re coming from a narrative that’s quite different than what an African-American student faces,” he said.

Whether a student is African-American, Latino or Arab-American, Arbulu said education leaders should more actively provide training on how to address those issues among administrators, teachers and school board members.

“A lot of factors come into play — the role of implicit bias, the role of structural racism that’s built into education and should be dismantled in a way that can be responsive to the changing makeup of the student population,” he said.

Therefore, there’s a need to increase the percentage of minority teachers, especially African-American teachers, by attracting them to the profession and keeping them there, Arbulu said.

The Civil Rights Commission will hold a series of hearings across the state on the connections between civil rights and education starting in Ypsilanti on May 21.

The GAO report analyzed discipline data from nearly all public schools for the school year 2013-14 and interviewed officials from five districts and 19 schools in California, Georgia, Massachusetts, North Dakota and Texas.

 

Campaign against plastic straws picks up speed

By AGNES BAO
Capital News Service

LANSING – People like plastic straws, but they’re not good for the environment, experts say.

Using plastic straws “cause problems in a variety of aspects,” said Mick DeGraeve, the director and senior environmental scientist at the Great Lakes Environmental Center based in Traverse City.

“Straws are small, and people just inadvertently or intentionally leave them lying on the sidewalk,” said DeGraeve, adding that they not only spoil natural beauty but also harm wildlife. Animals might ingest plastic straws that aren’t digestible.

Every day, Americans use 500 million plastic straws — enough to fill over 125 school buses — according to a report from the Eco-Cycle, a nonprofit recycler based in Boulder, Colorado.

“The plastic straws are kind of sturdy because they hold together for long time,” DeGraeve said. “If they end up in the Great Lakes or in the environment, they’re going to be there for a decade at least.”

However, environmental problems caused by plastic straws aren’t easily fixed by recycling, said Kerrin O’Brien, the executive director of the Michigan Recycling Coalition.

“There is no program that I know in the state that actually will recycle the straws,” O’Brien said. The reasons could be the shape of straws and that they’re too small to separate from other types of plastic and easily fall through the sorting mechanism.

Because plastic straws are hard to recycle, O’Brien suggested reusable ones instead.

And automatically providing a plastic straw should be a thing of the past, she said. “I would like to see eating and drinking establishments ask first before they assume people want to use a straw.”

In response to the problem, the Last Plastic Straw Committee TC, a group in Traverse City, has launched a campaign that calls on the public to reduce the use of straws.

A similar campaign is also operating in Ann Arbor organized by Stop the Straw, a student activist group from the University of Michigan.

Jeffery Elsworth, an associate professor in the School of Hospitality Business at Michigan State University, said restaurants are putting more effort into moving away from plastic straws and informing customers about their negative impacts.

Instead of automatically bringing customers plastic straws, more restaurants provide straws when customers ask, Elsworth said.

However, some customers complain about the absence of plastic straws in restaurants, he said. “It’s a habit for them to use straws, and they use them for different reasons.”

Therefore, providing paper straws could be a solution, but price is another concern, Elsworth said.

While a paper straw costs about 1 to 2 cents apiece, a plastic straw costs less than half a cent, he said. “If you are buying 20,000 straws in a case, it’s essentially a difference in price.”

To raise public awareness of plastic pollution caused by straws, the Great Lakes Environmental Center’s DeGraeve suggested improving education about environmental protection in schools and homes, as well as posting informational signs in public areas.

In addition, DeGraeve said a ban could be an effective way to deal with plastic straw pollution.

European wine shortage might not affect price of Michigan wine

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING – While poor weather in Europe appears poised to raise wine prices worldwide, Michigan’s own grapes might grow unhindered.

According to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, wine production hit a historic low in 2017, spurred by poor weather in the European Union and other important producers.  

However, Michigan vineyards might not raise their prices just to fall in line, according to Chateau Grand Traverse Winery President Eddie O’Keefe.

Most smaller wineries depend on direct-to-consumer business, such as in-person tastings or mail order sales, rather than retail stores, where they compete side by side with higher-priced European wines, O’Keefe said. That’s why many Michigan wineries won’t see price spikes from market forces.

Most U.S. wineries are “mom ‘n pop” operations, O’Keefe said: Global issues indirectly affect them, but in a way a lot of the small wineries are oblivious to them. There’s always competition, but smaller wineries have easier ways to determine their own destinies, he said.

“If it doesn’t affect you directly, most of the time people don’t care,” O’Keefe said.

Chateau Grand Traverse Winery, located near Traverse City, has been in business for 44 years, O’Keefe said, and was the first commercial winery and vineyard in Northern Michigan. Now, a large number of wineries cluster the Leelanau and Old Mission peninsulas north of Traverse City, and can be found scattered throughout the state.

Northern Michigan wineries had devastating production years in 2014 and 2015, but had good years in 2016 and 2017, O’Keefe said.

Every winery is impacted differently by a different year’s success, O’Keefe said. On average a really bad year where costs are high could take one and a half years to recover from, while two bad years in a row can really adversely affect business.

Most Michigan wineries are now stocked with product in their inventories, so he doesn’t see any reason for prices of local wines to rise. A bad year for Europe weather-wise might not mean a bad year for Michigan.

“That’s agriculture — you take the good with the bad. Some years you have bumper crops, other years you have to suck it up,” O’Keefe said.

Wineries that compete for shelf space might be a different situation.

Potential tariffs could also impact wine prices, O’Keefe said.

China tacked on an additional 15 percent tariff on U.S. wine exports in early April in response to escalating trade tensions. American wine exports might be priced out of Chinese markets, and larger U.S. wineries would have to repurpose those exports, potentially flooding U.S. markets with cheap wine and lowering domestic prices, O’Keefe said.

This year’s wine production hasn’t started because there’s still snow on the ground, but if there’s no frost through May, O’Keefe said 2018 could be a good year for wine production in Michigan.

Wine continues to be a growing industry in Michigan, and O’Keefe said he sees no reason why it won’t continue to grow.

“The only thing that would mess with that is good ‘ol Mother Nature,” O’Keefe said.

 

Autism diagnosis doesn’t come with a job

By MAXWELL EVANS
Capital News Service

LANSING — To combat high rates of unemployment among autistic individuals, mental health organizations statewide are connecting them to job opportunities — or even hiring them directly.

No reliable source tracks employment rates for adults with autism, according to Autism NOW, a national information center. Employment statistics generally fail to identify specific groups like those on the autism spectrum.

However, using results from a U.S. Department of Education study of youth who received special education services, the center suggested that young adults with autism are less likely to work than most other disability groups.

Thirty-three percent of young adults in the study with autism spectrum disorders had a paid job, compared to 59 percent for all disabled respondents.

Northern Transitions, a nonprofit community rehabilitation organization in Sault Ste. Marie, hires people with autism to assist with janitorial work and help with the county recycling service run through the organization.

The nonprofit connects people to jobs with local businesses as well. For example, Northern Transitions partners with the famed Soo Locks, placing autistic individuals into janitorial jobs around the park and supplying summer staff for its visitors’ center.

“Some people just come in the door — you know, ‘Hey, I’m a person with a disability and I’m looking for a job,’” said Karl Monroe, Northern Transitions’ rehabilitation director. “Some people we hire and some people we send to a job developer that works with about 40 companies down here and does placements.”

People with autism can bring unique skills to the workplace, Monroe said. Although autism can severely impact one’s social skills, it also often comes with an increased level of concentration and attention to detail.

Monroe told of an individual who found a grocery store job through Northern Transitions’ employment program and began to spot things most other employees simply skipped over.

“He’s noticing stuff that needs to be thrown away — which is not something that the boss appreciates,” Monroe said, tongue in cheek. “He’s the only person they have who always pays attention to the expiration dates.”

To better prepare people with autism for the workplace, the state has to start with fixing its special education system, said Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who chairs the Michigan Special Education Reform Task Force and has a daughter with autism.

“Now, even though we expect much more mainstreaming of kids with disabilities into general education settings, just putting a kid in a classroom is not really inclusion unless you have expertise on staff,” Calley said. “You can be as isolated in the classroom as you were if you’re not in the classroom if the student is not supported the way they need to be supported.”

“Our special education — we have to do better with that. If we do, I think it will open up more employment opportunities,” he said.

In 2012, Calley championed autism insurance legislation that eventually became law.  It mandated that insurance policies cover applied behavior analysis, occupational therapy and speech and language therapy.

While Monroe said he sees value in such services for managing the symptoms of autism, there’s less clarity about whether they impact career readiness.

Autism affects people in such diverse ways — from self-injury and speech difficulties in severe cases, to delayed social skills in more high-functioning individuals — that an autistic person’s success in employment depends more on the individuals and the field of work they end up in, he said.

Not all employers are equipped to hire autistic individuals, however — especially ones  with more severe symptoms. Even if individuals are prepared with the skills necessary to enter the workforce, finding an employer with the resources to accommodate their other needs is a separate challenge.

While the federal Rehabilitation Act prohibits employment discrimination based on disability, federal law also says employers don’t have to accommodate disabilities if doing so would cause “significant difficulty or expense” for the employer.

There’s no formula by which employers can figure out what would constitute “significant difficulty,” said Mark Cody, the legal director for the Michigan Protection and Advocacy Service, although the size of a company is one consideration.

“The cost of the hardship for a small company of 20 or 25 employees is going to have a bigger impact than a place like General Motors,” Cody said.

However, Cody said the law is generally tailored to both employer and employee needs. Treating the accommodations process as a continuing conversation can give potential employees the best shot at securing a job, while protecting employers from discrimination suits.

Autistic individuals seeking employment would be best served by submitting their request in writing and having a “give-and-take discussion” with the employer about what exactly they need on the job to perform their essential duties, Cody said.

“There’s a fair degree of flexibility, and it can work well for both employer and employee,” Cody said. “If the employer is too bureaucratic or too rigid, that’s where they tend to get into trouble because they don’t really work with the employee to figure out what needs to be done.”

Northern Transitions’ Monroe said employment is a quality-of-life matter for people with autism, and overcoming the many barriers to their employment is almost always a positive.

“I think you’d have a lot more happy persons with disabilities if more of them were employed,” Monroe said. “When you identify yourself, I think most people start out with what they do for a living.

“There are a lot of values to work besides a check.”

Electric cars fighting for fuel in Michigan

By RILEY MURDOCK
Capital News Service

LANSING — Michigan’s automotive future is looking more electric.

Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, the state’s two largest utility companies, have announced pilot programs in the coming year that will study the number and efficiency of charging stations and consider improvements to promote the adoption of electric vehicles.

The Public Service Commission has held two conferences  on “alternative fuel” vehicles to encourage public discussion of the state’s role in electric vehicle charging, said Nick Assendelft, the media relations and public information specialist for the commission.

Participants raised questions about the regulatory framework, such as whether users would pay directly for charging stations or through utility companies, Assendelft said.

Pilot programs discussed included initiatives by Consumers Energy and DTE Energy to partner with automakers and charging station companies in places like Ann Arbor and Detroit, Assendelft said.

At the latest conference, Consumers Energy presented its “Electric Vehicle Strategy.” The utility plans to seek opportunities such as streamlining home charging equipment installation, working with General Motors to improve at-home charging and beginning a three-year pilot program on infrastructure.

DTE presented a plan to start six pilot programs in 2018, including charging “showcases” in Detroit and Ann Arbor and “extreme fast” charging on highways.

Consumers Energy press officer Brian Wheeler said the company is    interested in doing what it can to promote development of electric vehicle infrastructure.

The company’s hope is that Michigan will be a leader in electric vehicle technology, just like it became a leader when the auto industry  started up, he said.

Part of building a network for charging will include home, public and highway stations. Also, Consumers Energy will look into encouraging installations through methods such as rebates, particularly for homes, Wheeler said.

No formal plan for the upcoming pilot project has been submitted yet and there’s currently no timetable, Wheeler said, but a plan should be submitted to the Public Service Commission soon.

“This is really an exciting time because while electric vehicles don’t make up a large portion of what you see on the road now.  It’s growing and it’s going to continue to grow,” Wheeler said.

Michigan Electric Auto Association President Bruce Westlake said electric cars are becoming more popular because the economics are becoming more viable: The last few years’ worth of electric vehicles from Tesla and other automakers  are much more affordable, he said, and cost less to operate than gas-fueled cars.

The association just completed two Earth Day events, Westlake said. In the 10 or more years such events have taken place, Westlake said he saw the most electric engines this year, potentially double past interest.

Michigan sits in about middle-of-the-pack for the number of electric cars in the state, Westlake said.

While some states have incentives for purchasing electric vehicles, Michigan in some ways punishes drivers for purchasing electric cars. As of Jan. 1, Michigan electric car owners  pay an additional $135 to register their vehicles, and hybrid car drivers pay an extra $47, the Secretary of State’s office said.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center says there are 362 public stations for electric vehicles in Michigan, including older “legacy” chargers. Michigan has the 17th-most public charging stations, although it’s the 10th most populous state, according to the U.S. Census..

According to Consumers Energy, there are no utility, state or federal incentives for public or home charging stations for electric vehicles.

When it comes to charging infrastructure, it might not have a large impact on electric car ownership. Charging stations are a “chicken or the egg” kind of situation, Westlake said: Most people want to know if there’s charging infrastructure available before they buy, but the vast majority of the time they’ll be charging at home.

Catch more trout–if you can!

By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING — Anglers fishing for brook trout in the Upper Peninsula this season can tackle portions of 36 streams where the daily bag limit has been increased to 10 fish.

The season just opened and runs until Sept. 30.

“It’s been an evolving issue,” said George Madison, a Baraga-based fisheries manager for the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “For many years, the daily possession limit was 10 brook trout. After a while, there was concern from sport anglers and groups that the limit could be too much on streams that receive a lot of fishing pressure.”

In 2000, all of the state’s Type 1 trout streams changed to a five-fish bag limit, Madison said. However, some people felt there were a lot of streams that didn’t receive much fishing pressure, and the 10-fish limit could still be in effect in those areas.

Most streams in the state are Type 1.

“Several years ago we did some experimental streams with the 10-fish limit to evaluate if the people catching 10 fish would truly impact the populations or not,” Madison said. “The evaluation went on for four years, and every summer was different. We couldn’t really tell if populations were being impacted by the 10-fish limit.”

Phil Schneeberger, the Lake Superior Basin coordinator for the DNR, said brook trout populations have a high variability from year to year due to environmental factors, with or without an increase in the bag limit.

“There was some evidence of a decrease in population in some streams with an increase in the bag limit, but I wouldn’t call it compelling,” he said. “The population also decreased in some streams that did not have a increase in the bag limit. There are just so many other factors that can make the population fluctuate.”

However, Madison said the study did show that many remote streams in the U.P. get little to no fishing pressure,.

In 2016, the Natural Resources Commission decided to open more streams to the higher bag limit, he said. “All in all the decision was supported by the public. They recognized this would diversify fishing opportunities across the U.P. areas.”

All but one of the U.P.’s 15 counties has at least one stream on the list of those with a 10-fish bag limit. The sole exception is Menominee County.

“I think it’s a good opportunity for the anglers,” Madison said. “We’ve selected streams throughout the U.P. so that whatever county you’re in, you have an opportunity nearby to have a stream that would have a higher possession limit.”

One reason the DNR is increasing the limit is because it’s not seeing as many stream anglers.

“At one time, it was very popular. Years ago there would be anglers packed along the river. Nowadays, you don’t see that as much,” Madison said. “Anglers have become a little more sedentary where they like to fish out of boats for walleye or bass.“

One problem is that some anglers, especially those who are unfamiliar with an area or stream, may be confused because only a portion of some streams has the higher limit.

However, Madison said DNR maps try to make the boundaries clear-cut, such as a county road “so people would know that the waters upstream from this road are 10-fish possession limit and waters below the road are five-fish possession limit,” he said.

Another problem for the DNR is the difficulty of enforcing the regulation. For example, if a conservation officer comes across an angler near one of the boundaries with 10 fish in his or her cooler, the officer has no way of knowing on which side of the stream the angler caught the fish.

Schneeberger said,“We realize that with the proximity of some of the increased bag limit streams so close to the five-bag limit streams, it’s going to be almost impossible to enforce it rigorously.”

However, Madison said most anglers are pretty good at following the rules.

“Most of our regulations are based on an honor system. Ninety-nine percent of the anglers follow the letter of the law.”

Based on the DNR’s creel census studies, most people catch between three and five fish, Madison said. “Although there are people that fish hard and are good anglers. They know where to go and they can catch 10 fish.”

There’s a surge in fishing from the season opener through early summer, “and then it kind of wanes after that,” Madison said. “People move on to other activities. We see a little bit of an uptick in September because people get out for the fall colors.”