Michigan solar energy installers have been gearing up over the past week to return to work today following an executive order by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that opens construction, real estate and some manufacturing sectors.
In the first week of May, solar installers were finalizing workplace safety guidelines, reconnecting with customers awaiting installations and preparing vehicles. For the most part, the solar installation industry shut down over the past month and a half.
Mark Hagerty, president of Michigan Solar Solutions LLC, shut down operations on March 23. Earlier this week the company activated insurances on vehicles and loaded them with supplies.
“We will be fully back to work by the 7th,” Hagerty said.
Rob Rafson, founder of Chart House Energy LLC in Muskegon, plans to fully resume work on Monday.
“We are working to get everything prepared and to be safe,” he said. Chart House is installing several solar projects in low-income communities across Michigan, including Muskegon Heights, with a focus on hiring local people.
Rafson noted that he’s paying workers at least $20 an hour, and “my guys tell me that they are getting unemployment very close to working pay. I think the government made a huge mistake by having unemployment so good that it pays more than going back to work in many cases.”
Allan O’Shea, president and sales director of CBS Solar in Copemish, told MiBiz this week that he set new workplace guidelines for social distancing, redesigned company vehicles and is offering a per diem for workers to bring their own lunch or who want to use their personal vehicles for work. O’Shea said customers will be contacted ahead of time to see if they’re comfortable with installation crews at their home.
“Even if there is a vaccine developed, I’m not going to change our procedures because the damage certainly hurts our cash flow and ability to grow as a company,” he said. “And here we are in the middle of it.”
O’Shea also actively marketed his company during the shutdown, lining up additional jobs — ranging from Petoskey to Mason County — while construction was on pause.
The return to work follows a six-week period in which energy companies took a varied approach to construction during the pandemic. Energy has been considered critical infrastructure under Whitmer’s executive orders.
Consumers Energy, for example, continued work on its generation projects, including the Gratiot Farms wind project in Gratiot County. DTE Energy, meanwhile, had initially halted construction on its $1 billion natural gas plant in St. Clair County.
Large utilities may have had more clear guidance about essential work compared to smaller clean energy companies. The Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council encouraged members to consult with their attorneys during the shutdown.
“We realize several of our competitors never shut down and likely were never penalized,” Hagerty said. “We felt that since many of our employees have family members in high risk categories, it was not worth putting their loved ones in harm’s way.”
The MEIBC says Whitmer’s May 1 order allows large and small solar, wind, battery storage and energy efficiency contracting to resume work. The group called the order “another example of a balanced approach that prioritizes public safety first and foremost, while also taking into account the specific needs of industries, without compromising the top priority of safety.”