Michiganders need reliable power. community solar projects could be the answer.

The foothills of northern California are a breathtaking achievement of the natural world. They’re also at constant risk of becoming an environmental hellscape, mired in runway wildfires and elongated droughts. To prevent much of northern California from becoming like Paradise — a town that burned to the ground after a wire was clipped by wind, sparking a wildfire — Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) turned off homeowners’ power for several days at a time during various parts of the fall of 2019.

That meant frequently cooking on a gas stove by flashlight and not taking a shower for an uncomfortably-long time. Northern community residents complained, mostly blaming PG&E for refusing to update its electric grid despite decades of urges from public officials to do so. As a result, we sat in the dark, waiting for the wind to abate and for the monopolistic utility corporation to decide it was safe to once again give us the energy we relied on to cook, work, and relax.

Returning to Michigan, I felt I’d escaped the worst of climate change’s exploitation of America’s most vulnerable landscape. Fires, floods, and droughts appeared less likely in a relatively flat state away from dangerous sea-level rise, but surrounded by the plentiful fresh waters of the Great Lakes.

And then the summer of 2021 happened, and all the predictions that climate scientists and climate journalistswarned about became truer — even in the most unlikely of places. Huge rainfalls created floods that devastated streets and homes, particularly in the least resilient and poorest areas of Detroit, expanding environmental inequality that has already devastated the lungs and general wellbeing of city residents.

While hitting the poorest hardest, wealthier and more stable communities have been affected by the storms too. In August, after weeks of flooding, 800,000 residents in Metro Detroit lost power due to an outdated electrical grid. In this case, two private electrical utilities couldn’t keep the power on amidst the recent winds billowing into an aging and un-updated city.

Again, I was without power. Again, those in charge of getting it back on were giant monopolies. But this time I knew that amidst the climatic chaos that we now endure and are unlikely to ever return from, it wouldn’t be my last. But was that thought warranted?

Alternative, cleaner energy models exist. One of the more gripping possibilities comes in the form of introducing democratic sovereignty to the realm of electrical power, otherwise known as community solar.

Tyranny of Monopoly

This isn’t the first time some of Michigan’s largest private utility companies have failed in their line of duty, crumbling under the weight of climatic pressure.

Like PG&E, the monopolies of DTE Energy and Consumers Energy have neglected to update their infrastructure and upgrade their energy lines, despite rate hikes and the additional millions they pay to higher ups — who happen to be some of the highest paid utility CEOs in the country, according to Tom Perkin’s reporting for the Metro Times. The failure to update its grid almost caused Consumers Energy to completely crash in recent years due to overuse during one of the Michigan’s coldest winter days. And then the systemdid crash ­when, during a 96-degree day, over 800,000 customers lost power.

Already, much of America’s infrastructure is failing. Even with the added money from a potential bill currently moving through the Senate, Detroit has been unable to withstand heavy rains and grid resiliency has been shaken to its core throughout the American west. Like DTE, monopolistic private electrical companies have been moving too slowly on the issue, frequently choosing, as aforementioned, to delay modernizing its grid in favor of paying its corporate executives millions. It’s a phenomenon that’s sadly not unique to Michigan.

Today, Michigan’s grid is more consistently failing, with heavy rainfall and higher water levels submerging electrical infrastructure. The state’s different mechanisms for storing, transferring, and transmitting power received an overall D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers.

For those believing in the capitalistic system, one that includes entrepreneurs freely entering markets untainted by monopoly and oligopoly, there’s nothing more odious than an unrivaled behemoth corporation. That’s because the effect of it preventing competition kills any incentive to improve a company’s service when they are the only ones able to provide it — a claim often levied at the inefficiencies of some government services. And so, instead of offering alternative forms of energy, including that of clean, reliable solar and wind power, DTE and Consumers have typically chosen to stay the course. Typical of monopolistic companies, they have tried to prevent others from treading on their territory, or even competing for it.

For its part, DTE plans to drastically reduce its use of fossil fuels, reducing its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, using a combination of natural gas (40%), renewables (40%) and nuclear energy (20%) sources by that time. This was in part due to incentives set by the Obama administration and because DTE’s coal facilities are aging so much they will need to be replaced soon anyway. Consumers too says it will transition to 90% renewable energy sources by 2040.

But despite these trends, why, philosophically, should Michiganders allow power — both metaphorical and literal — to lie in the hands of a few? Why not open up the powers of the free market and communal participation, allowing small actors and neighborhoods to control their own sources of energy as occurs with independent cooperatives across the country?

Unfortunately, in much of Michigan, that isn’t possible. Even earning money from power generated by independent solar panels often doesn’t pencil out anymore.

In 2019, DTE killed net metering, preventing its customers from selling the excess energy they derive from their solar panels back to the grid. The decision from the Michigan Public Service Commission, with heavy lobbying pressure from the utility company, was also associated with a 9% rate hike for DTE customers and the limited the ability of Michiganders to distribute energy generated from solar up to 1% of the utility’s peak load.

Any systemic changes don’t look promising because of the nature of the beast, as, unsurprisingly, DTE takes the millions it uncompetitively acquires and invests it in political contributions to both federal and state representatives. Consumers too has spent millions on candidates through nonprofits who support their lobbying efforts and often invests in candidates who oppose those that criticize the company.

What does all that lobbying get us? As it stands, Michiganders pay the highest rates for electricity in the Midwest, and some of the highest rates in the country.

Community Solar

As aforementioned, there’s another way.

Community solar is a cost-sharing mechanism that allows neighborhoods to get energy connected to a shared solar array, thereby lowering the costs and, ideally, making energy more reliable. That is, if a fire or flood inundates solar panels in one community, a neighboring community need not be impacted as well. Community solar also touches on issues of democratic participation, equity, and justice, as it’s even been floated to use the project as reparations to Black residents in New Orleans.

Some rural northern California communities already use this model. Instead of relying on PG&E power, communities run their own energy cooperatives, reducing prices, removing the profit-motive out, and reliably keeping the lights on, especially when northern California goes dark. Other solar experts in the area are vying for a similar mechanism, hoping to connect some 15 to 100 homes to community solar panels.

And community solar projects appear to be growing, particularly in parts of the northeast and Midwest. While commercial and residential solar investments are taking the lead, community solar implementation is anticipated to grow beyond the capacity of 2,000 megawatts between 2021 and 2026, according to a report by the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Michigan is ripe to leap on the train. A 2019 Michigan Technological University study found that two northern Michigan communities had the capacity to implement community solar on its own, as long as local participation was adequately and consistently recruited.

Possibilities

As climate change wrecks further havoc on our roads, cars, homes and buildings, those in Michigan who often consider themselves safe from the weather’s wrath are now more deeply considering alternative energy models other than those that have been presented during the second half of the 20th century.

A few bills introduced in 2018 in the Michigan House allow solar companies to compete with the larger energy powerhouses by supplying energy via a microgrid to prevent individuals from losing power when the larger grid is devastated. The bill also allows for the creation of energy cooperatives.

More recently, two bipartisan 2021 House bills making community solar more feasible have been introduced. They’ve received endorsements from Michele Hoitenga (R-Manton) and Rachel Hood (D-Grand Rapids). The legislation allows community residents to build and distribute power from their own community solar sites.

No new taxes,” the lawmakers wrote in a Bridge Magazine column. “No mandatory participation. Just greater access to cost-effective, renewable energy for those who want it, and there are plenty who do, and a more diverse energy base for the state which benefits everyone.”

Although DTE and Consumers have countered strongly the previously mentioned legislation, there may be room for negotiation. Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Charter Township just worked out a partnership with DTE to create a 77-acre community project to customers of DTE in the area.

Notably, though, this doesn’t seem like a realistic model to allow communities to advocate for their own solar array.

Who knows — maybe a bipartisan push, and a broad swath of community groups will come unite to push against the expansive control harnessed among Consumers and DTE?

Until then, I’ll be trying to appreciate the little things — cooking, AC, reading by something other than candle light — knowing that it could all be gone in a lightning strike.

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