By Dan Netter
Capital News Service
LANSING – Advocates for solar power for Michigan homes are now hoping to expand solar grids on public land.
Sens. Ed McBroom, R-Waucedah Township, and Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, have introduced bills to encourage the building and regulation of solar centers to help power entire small communities.
Together, the bills would create a framework for the Michigan Public Service Commission, the state’s utility regulator, on how to regulate community solar projects to protect consumers and how to provide energy bill credits to subscribers to the projects.
Community solar panels are typically solar arrays on public lands such as parks, vacant lots or possibly even former dumping sites.
McBroom said he and Irwin have different philosophies for why they pursue renewable energy projects, but that the two have been working together on creating community-based projects since entering the legislature over a decade ago.
“I think that renewables in general are much more efficient and practical on a small scale than they are on the large industrial scale and that the state should be promoting that much more than large wind farms and large solar arrays,” McBroom said.
He cited Escanaba’s Solar Project owned by the city’s utility company. It allows customers to purchase solar panels and receive a credit on their electricity bill for the proportion of electricity the project’s panels produce.
“There’s a lot of opportunities, a lot of communities have some space whether it’s out by their airport or former industrial land, and if the citizens would like to see solar generation put on that and help save some energy costs for both their government and them as residents, these bills hopefully that up to be much more practical than it is right now,” McBroom said.
The Escanaba solar project started in July 2018, and is located at the Delta County airport. Other community solar projects in the state are in Ingham, Wayne, Oakland, Kent, Kalamazoo and Wexford counties.
The legislation also requires that 30% of the electricity created by the projects be reserved for low-income households and organizations.
The Michigan Municipal League is excited that the bills includes language about low-income families, according to Herasanna Richards, the group’s state and federal affairs legislative associate.
“Equity is something that is at the forefront of everything we do with the league,” Richards said. “We also have been encouraging our members as they’re taking these advancements and having these conversations to definitely think about individuals and populations that may not be directly in line to achieve this right off the bat, so how can we make this holistically accessible.”
Community solar projects allow low-income households to save costs on their energy or electricity bills without having to pay for the expense of installing solar panels on their roofs, according to a 2020 report from the Michigan Solar Communities.
The expansion of community solar projects is among the priorities of the Michigan Environmental Council and has been in the works for a while, said Carlee Knott, the group’s energy and climate policy specialist.
Michigan does not permit anyone other than utility companies, municipal or privately-owned to commission community solar panels, Knott said.
The incentive for utility companies is to create as large of a solar grid as possible, Knott said. That makes it hard to create community solar projects in smaller communities.
Knott said the council has heard from smaller communities that want solar grids in their area but that the utilities companies like DTE Energy and Consumers Energy tend to only build large community solar grids because that is where it is most profitable for them.
“They can’t build a lot of their small-scale community solar that they want because utilities aren’t going for it,” Knott said.
Richards, of the Michigan Municipal League, said the group views the legislation as an opportunity for investor-owned DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, to wade into clean energy and community solar projects throughout the state.
A 2019 study from two Michigan State University researchers found that the economic impact of community solar projects would likely bring about 900 jobs to the state through the delivery, installation and upkeep of panels over five years.
The bill was referred to the Committee on Energy and Environment, chaired by Sen. Sean McCann, D-Kalamazoo.
The bipartisan package is cosponsored by Sens. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor; Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak; Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit; Sylvia Santana, D-Detroit; Rosemary Bayer, D-Keego Harbor; Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia; Sue Shink, D-Ann Arbor; Mary Cavanagh, D-Redford Township; Darrin Camilleri, D-Trenton; Sam Singh, D-East Lansing and Kevin Daley, R-Lum Township.