Michigan’s two largest investor-owned utilities have launched an “education campaign” as clean energy advocates tout the potential economic benefits of community solar energy and as lawmakers consider bills on the topic that the utilities oppose.
Jackson-based Consumers Energy and Detroit-based DTE Energy today announced the partnership, which highlights the companies’ efforts to build out solar projects that customers can subscribe to based on their needs.
Known as community solar, the type of clean energy development is meant to provide investment opportunities to people who might not otherwise be able to afford or install home-based solar projects. Community solar also carries an equity component when subscriptions are covered by nonprofits but electric bill credits are delivered to low-income customer subscribers.
DTE and Consumers today called the new partnership a “first in the nation.”
Consumers Energy’s Solar Gardens program so far includes 4.5 megawatts (MW) of capacity at three subscription-based projects at Grand Valley State University, Western Michigan University and at a former manufacturing brownfield site in Cadillac. The Michigan Public Service Commission has approved up to 10 MW of capacity under the project. Consumers Energy’s program also allows nonprofits that serve low-income customers or schools to participate while designated customers served by the organization receive the bill credits.
DTE’s voluntary MIGreenPower program allows customers to offset their electricity use with renewable energy purchases. The program is supported in part by solar projects that DTE has built in Lapeer and Detroit.
Sarah Nielsen, executive director of transportation, renewables and storage at Consumers Energy, said during a virtual press conference today that the company’s community solar efforts “run contrary to out-of-state developers” who seek to “destabilize” Michigan’s grid with unregulated projects.
Nielsen added that Consumers would consider expanding its community solar program based on demand.
“As the utilities here in Michigan, what DTE and Consumers are able to do that no one else can do is look across the entire service territory to ensure costs are equitable and ensure the costs are just for everyone,” Nielsen said. “The challenge when you have developers come in: They’re only looking at one little piece of that grid to benefit those customers that are oftentimes the only ones able to afford those benefits.”
Economic potential, legislation
Nielsen was referencing a debate in Michigan that’s attracted more attention in recent weeks.
Last week, community solar advocates released a study they commissioned from Michigan State University showing roughly $1.5 billion in economic benefits and the addition of nearly 20,000 jobs over three decades under a potential scenario that built out 900 MW of community solar over the next six years.
Meanwhile, the state House Energy Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing Wednesday morning on two bills that would allow third party developers to build subscription-based solar projects.
Under House Bills 4715 and 4716 — sponsored by Rep. Rachel Hood, D-Grand Rapids, and Michele Hoitenga, R-Manton, respectively — subscribers would receive a monthly bill credit from their utility based on the amount of power they purchase from the solar project. Community solar projects could be built by for-profit or nonprofit entities and not exceed 5 MW, according to the proposed legislation.
The legislation would “ensure that all customer classes have opportunities to participate as subscribers to a community solar facility,” according to bill language. The proposal also specifies opportunities for low-income households, and would prohibit utilities from penalizing customers who participate in a community solar project.
Utilities would be allowed to recover costs for administering bill credits and for interconnecting the third party-owned projects to their power grid.
Overall, the legislation would “require that electric providers efficiently connect community solar facilities to the electrical distribution grid and not discriminate against community solar facilities.”
Consumers Spokesperson Katelyn Carey told MiBiz that the company is opposed to the two bills.
“Not only are proposed House bills 4715-16 unnecessary to bring affordable clean energy to all customers, but they create serious consumer protection risks for Michigan homes and businesses by taking Michigan toward the ill-advised path of electricity deregulation,” Carey said in an email.
Editor’s note: This story has been clarified that a recent Michigan State University report on community solar said the potential economic benefits to the state would be spread over 30 years.