Opinion | Big utility companies want to limit options for Michigan customers

Jackson Koeppel is executive director of Soulardarity, a Highland Park-based nonprofit working to expand access to solar energy in urban areas and promote affordability and energy democracy for low-income communities and communities of color

Rooftop solar has huge potential to lower electricity costs, foster energy independence for homeowners, small businesses and low-income communities and reduce dangerous pollution from dirty energy plants. Highland Park, where I live, could achieve energy independence through rooftop solar alone.

Big utility companies, like DTE Energy, clearly recognize the enormous potential of solar and that’s why they want to control it, instead of letting communities harmed by high costs, pollution and poor service generate their own power.

A recent guest column by a DTE-backed group cynically named “Michigan Energy Promise” spreads misinformation regarding solar energy. Behind the distortions and scare tactics is a hidden agenda to control this emerging market so big utility companies can maximize profits at the expense of ratepayers.

Related article: Opinion | Solar lobbyists seek subsidies at expense of low-income Michiganders

Who is Michigan Energy Promise?

Michigan Energy Promise is the latest incarnation of DTE dark money group Michigan Energy First, according to the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs. DTE officials Renze Hoeksema, vice president of corporate and government affairs, and Theresa Uzenski, manager of regulatory strategy and accounting, are officers of the group. Well-known campaign finance attorney Eric Doster, who has created many other dark money groups, is secretary. The organization has deep pockets, taking in $15 million in contributions in 2017, according to public tax forms.

From unjust rate hikes to outright assaults on community solar, which is the best opportunity for low-income communities to benefit from clean energy, DTE has shown its true agenda: absolute and unchallenged control of Michigan’s energy market.

DTE also wants to distract consumers from the fact that Michigan has the highest electricity costs in the Midwest with some of the worst utility performance, according to independent experts. In response, thousands of Michigan residents have made decisions to invest in clean, renewable energy to help lower their high electricity costs, promote cleaner air and water and reduce dangerous pollution. Unfortunately, DTE’s policies, practices and lobbying are keeping it out of the hands of low-income people who need it most.

Here’s a fact DTE utility executives don’t mention: Rooftop solar users provide a benefit to the energy grid and help lower all customers’ energy costs, which is good for low-income energy users.

That’s why it’s so sad to see DTE Energy attempt to pit different groups against each other to advance their cynical agenda by falsely claiming that users of rooftop solar are subsidized by the poor.

Solar panels generate the most electricity when the sun shines the brightest, which happens to be the time of day when businesses and residents draw the most energy from the grid and costs are highest. So again, solar power helps mitigate these expensive energy peaks, bringing down costs for everyone. Plus, it is much more affordable to get energy from a neighbor with rooftop solar than a natural gas or coal plant miles away.

DTE’s energy plan should alarm ratepayers across Michigan. It would:

  • First, charge rooftop solar users a huge fee.
  • Second, give them only pennies on the dollar for the energy they generate.
  • Third, after forcing most rooftop customers out of the market, DTE would be left to create a monopoly over solar power, like its monopoly over conventional energy.

One only needs to look at the army of lobbyists DTE uses to maintain its stranglehold and beat back any effort for energy independence to know what Michigan ratepayers are up against.

Soulardarity is among a number of grassroots organizations that have been active at the public service commission advocating on behalf of low-income communities against the rate hike being proposed by DTE Energy that would increase energy costs for those communities and make rooftop solar unaffordable for Michigan families.

It’s time for Michigan ratepayers to raise their voices and tell the Public Service Commission to keep solar energy affordable and accessible for all Michigan residents.  Don’t let big utility rhetoric erode the promise of solar power.

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Paul Wohlfarth
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 8:34am

Yes many Michigan utilities are working against alternative energy sourced from homeowners. Recently former Governor Rick Snyder vetoed HB5143 which had passed the House (106-3) and the Senate (38-0). The bills exempted residential alternative energy systems from real estate taxes. The veto was a huge jobs killer in this growing field across the nation. As quickly as Snyder was shown the door a new bill HB4068/4069 was reintroduced by Rep Bronna Kahle to again make alternative energy tax exempt. My Congressman Tim Walberg is working on "modernizing" the PURPA ACT. of 1970. Walberg is looking to limit small private alternative energy producers to protect utility monoply on energy production across the country. His large utility donors are promised a 14% return on their energy production by law. So under Walberg's "modernization" utilities will own their markets at the cost to its customers. https://www.eenews.net/energywire/2019/03/07/stories/1060123383

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 8:40am

A powerful advantage of distributed rooftop photovoltaic solar is that it requires utilities to do the hard work of upgrading Michigan's electric distribution system into a smart power grid. This is a massive benefit to all residential users, but even more importantly to all commercial and industrial users. Michigan's economy and jobs depend on a consistent supply of power. A smart power grid would be an additional incentive for industry to move to Michigan. It's shocking that our entire electric distribution system is still exposed to failure as a result of a power disruption anywhere in the state, or even out of state. Remember the Northeast Blackout of 2003 that shut down electric power in 8 states and Ontario, all because of a software bug at FirstEnergy in Akron Ohio? (Google it). Imagine what will happen when North Korean and Chinese hackers choose to shut down our power grid. Does DTE have Huawei equipment currently controlling our electric supply? Don't be fooled by big demonstration PV solar arrays that DTE builds to greenwash their image. DTE should incentivize rooftop PV solar with residential insulation subsidies such as rebates and 20-year equipment leases, along with guaranteed retail-priced net metering. Widely distributed rooftop photovoltaic solar forces utilities to upgrade to a smart grid that not only reduces carbon emissions, it creates a hardened power supply network that is more resistant to power outages from any cause.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 2:39pm

'Don't be fooled by big demonstration PV solar arrays that DTE builds to greenwash their image.' DTE and Big Energy loves solar - AS LONG AS THEY TOTALLY OWN AND CONTROL IT. If the little people have to be dealt with in buying solar from them, well that's a non-starter; erodes their monopoly, corporate control and profits.
Once we had 'public utilities' (like non-for-profit health insurers and hospitals), now it's for profit corporations controlled hundreds, if not thousands of miles away. They won't talk to you (honestly) and don't want to listen to you either. Pay your bill and shut up.

Wed, 03/13/2019 - 9:57am

The problem with using residential distributed solar power to force "utilities to do the hard work of upgrading Michigan's electric distribution system into a smart power grid" is that under the current MPSC rules, the people signed up to put solar panels on their roofs are exempted from most of the costs of those upgrades, but are the ones most directly benefiting from using the utility-maintained, publicly funded power grid as a giant battery. Right now, a well-to-do homeowner who wants to "go solar" can save substantial money on their electric bills, even without net metering. But renters, and people with poor credit scores are being forced to pay even more for their power because of the burden on the power grid created by the solar power generators. And that doesn't even begin to cover the damages done to all the condensers, fans, pumps, and electronics in the neighborhood by poor power quality and voltage sags or spikes created by the solar panels' intermittent power inputs.

The writer is also dead wrong about the ability of a house with a standard solar power system to provide useable power, even to it's occupants, during a grid blackout. In order for a home with solar panels to use their regular appliances, both batteries and an inverter capable of providing its own frequency control must be installed. That's in addition to more robust switches to prevent the solar installation from feeding power into the utility grid, endangering the lives of the linemen working to repair and restore power to everyone, not just the well-to-do. The batteries a home would need to cover just a 36 hour outage that started at dusk would double the cost of a typical residential solar power system. Adding the more sophisticated grid-independent inverter needed to support standard AC appliances adds another 50%. If Gary, or any other solar enthusiast wants to do that, I am all in favor of letting them. Let's just make sure they are subject to the same safety and equipment robustness requirements as the utilities are, and make them subject to grid capacity charges like any other power generator.

Mike B
Tue, 10/01/2019 - 8:11am

Anna works for DTE. I will expose her at DTE request.

Sat, 10/19/2019 - 4:25pm

Mike, you couldn't be more wrong. I am currently unemployed.

What I am is a mechanical engineer with an MBA, who has personal experience with both photovoltaic and solar hot water systems in off-grid applications.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 10:08am

Life is full of choices. Here's two. Buy your own batteries and cut your cord showing DTE how much they will miss you (singly or solar all power hobbyists collectively). Or two, come to the adult admission, you need them more than they need you. Power only has value if you can guarantee X megawatts at specific times in the future otherwise not much.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 11:39am

Behold, the Conservative mindset: Nothing can ever be better, don't rock the boat, accept what corporations tell you. If we ever need our boots cleaned, we know where to find you

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 2:19pm

Of course Bones would like to put the Detroit Water Dept. in charge of electrical services too!

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 8:13pm

So Bones how do you feel about Nuke plants? The only renewable that really works.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 9:37pm

Nuclear plants are great. We should have been investing in them in the 70s, but that doesn't mean it's too late to start now. Gen 4 reactors are practically ready for prime time; they're more efficient, incapable of melting down, and can be built on the same footprint as existing coal plants. Target the generation portfolio for 60% nuclear, 50% wind/solar (on top of other existing clean plants like hydro and geothermal).

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 1:20pm

Sooner or later i'd find something we'd agree about. But I doubt that the 50% solar and wind is worth the bother, ... 20% max. My nuke submariner friend says the reactor they used, would supply a 30k pop. city no problem.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 2:34pm

Yes, monopolies are always good for consumers and will always keep their captive customers happy.
Would you like a bridge I have for sale? It's in New York City and well kept up.

Mon, 03/11/2019 - 7:50pm

But Rick you love monopolies... only if they're run by the government

James F Bish
Mon, 03/11/2019 - 7:49pm

I grew up in a state,(Nebraska) where for profit utilities like DTE are banned from operating by state law. My brother in Lincoln, Ne. has a 2 bedroom condo (Their weather is not dissimilar to our Detroit weather). His home is not too different from mine, with one exception. It is totally powered by electricity. (he does not mess with natural gas. His electricity bill is roughly half of what I pay in Detroit.

Paul Jordan
Tue, 03/12/2019 - 8:46am

I'm grateful to Bridge for posting this reply. However, I think that in all fairness to its readers When any opinion piece is posted Bridge should fully investigate the affiliations and funding of the poster, and share that information beside whatever they've written.
Entities such as 'Michigan Energy Promise'--and for that matter, 'Souladarity'--present themselves as independent and objective but unless the reader knows who funds them and about any corporate connections we cannot judge the value of what they have written.

Karen Kostbade
Sat, 03/23/2019 - 8:38am

(My opinion alone and not my employer’s.) A little off topic, but I personally think Michigan should take advantage of all of the wind blowing across Lake Michigan by putting up turbines a fair distance from the shore so that they blend in with the horizon. Just my two cents.

James Katakowski
Mon, 03/25/2019 - 9:09pm

Sounds good to me just came back from Niagara Falls by way of Michigan through Canada and we passed many wind turbines. Helps us to use less fossil fuels which is good for clean energy. You are spot on Karen.

Mike B
Tue, 10/01/2019 - 8:02am

DTE has a choke hold on residents and businesses alike with their monopoly machine. The Michigan Public Service Commission is part of DTE. DTE will not allow solar power into their grid so they can continue to their monopoly. We need relief we need the Federal Government to step in and control DTE and The Michigan Public Service Commission.