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

Bishop W.L. Starghill, Jr of the Michigan Democratic Black Caucus is a member of Michigan Energy Promise, an alliance defending Michigan energy policies.

To build an inclusive future for all people, we need an energy policy that treats everybody the same. Energy needs to be affordable. It needs be reliable. It needs to be clean.

Michiganders from all walks of life worked together in 2016 to develop a plan to achieve those goals, and we should not allow it to be disrupted by solar lobbyists aiming to make money on the backs of low-income Michiganders.

Rebuttal: Big utility companies want to limit options for Michigan customers

Certain out-of-state groups are promoting the private solar industry as the only answer to our clean energy needs. They’re wrong. Private rooftop solar systems are a good option for people who can afford them, but Michigan needs clean power that is universal and supports every family and business all the time and in every season.

It costs tens of thousands of dollars to install a private solar system on a home, which makes it unrealistic for the majority of Michiganders. Solar developers now have lobbyists in Lansing trying to convince our lawmakers that customers without these private solar systems should subsidize the costs for the privileged few who can afford rooftop solar. If wealthier customers choose to invest in private solar, that’s great, but they can’t expect the rest of Michigan’s households to subsidize their costs.

This energy inequality is rooted in how Michigan energy companies compensate people who install solar panels on their homes. Those customers, unlike most of us, get a special rate that does not factor in what it costs to maintain a reliable and resilient power grid.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers alike voted three years ago to reduce private solar subsidies and create a long-term energy strategy that put Michigan on a path to be a national leader in the transition to clean energy. Just in the past two years, we have seen commitments to reduce carbon emissions by 80% and renewable investments that go well beyond current state mandates.

The 2016 energy law recognizes renewables like solar and wind power have come a long way. They are now such mature energy sources that they no longer need subsidies—unless your goal is to subsidize private homeowners or line the pockets of out-of-state companies.

Solar energy is an important part of Michigan’s answer to a cleaner energy future, but we should not carve out special deals for any one kind of energy—or one kind of energy consumer—that upend the balance we are trying to achieve for all Michiganders. Everyone deserves clean, reliable and affordable energy, regardless of where they live or their economic situation.

The private solar lobbyists in Lansing are pushing for a system that allows private homeowners to put a Cadillac-style energy system on their rooftops and pass the bill for maintaining the roads on to the rest of us.

That’s not fair. That’s not right. Let’s stick with the path we’re on.

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Tue, 02/26/2019 - 8:36am

I am not an expert on this but it seems like if you are on the grid you need to pay your fair share of the cost to maintain the grid. That means ((total cost) - (generation cost))/number of connections to the grid = cost per connection to the grid. Then depending on how much energy you use, you should owe for the cost of that energy generation. I know the math isn't that simple but that is generally how it should work. Having solar power and still being on the grid should not prevent you from paying for the grid. Otherwise when the costs of solar gets low enough there will be 50% of households using solar and the poorest 50% would be paying for the entire grid costs, they won't be able to do so and then it would seem the grid financing would collapse impacting all Michiganders.

Thomas Collins
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 9:48am

it is sad that seeking an advantage for the privileged should taint the needed shift to clean energy. Dont the wealthy understand that the rest of us are drowning in college and/or consumer debt, suffering from depressed wages, and need help. As FDR did long ago, someone needs to speak up for the little guy!

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:17am

The problem Thomas is that NO, the wealthy do not understand that the rest of us are drowning in debt, are not paid a living wage, and can't dig out. If wealthy do not shop for their own groceries, never have to decide whether to pay for food or their child's birthday gift, and have no idea how much their electricity bill or usage is, then of course they do not understand how we live. Imagine Mr. Trump in a grocery store trying to find ginger ale for his sick child. Not his reality. I agree with you completely.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:36am

Or maybe instead of subsidies, the companies could help low income individuals install solar panels to lower their energy expenses and become more financially sound. Oh, but wait, some like it when people are dependent on the system and can't afford their bills. This way, someone has to rush in to save them. I agree that corporations should not get sweetheart deals, but we are stuck in a cycle of myopic thinking. We have a system where we don't seek or encourage problem solving, but simply band-aids to temporarily mollify a problem or instead just move the problem around. This doesn't even get into the facts about low income individuals are often those most impacted by emissions created by fossil fuels. Let's be honest transparent about the entire conversation. There is no magic bullet, but there can be compromise and forward thinking to solve long term problems whether they be environmental or socio-economic.

Shining Light o...
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:49am

Michigan Energy Promise is a front for DTE - it is a subversive attempt for them to control energy production. Look at their MI Business Profile - utility lobbyists and DTE officials are their core founders. They are giving money to community groups to do their dirty work for them. The comments in this string look like a planned social media strategy. Don't be fooled by corporate greed!


Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:52am

To all that misunderstand private solar. Customers of DTE and Consumers Power do pay for the electricity. The sun only shines during the day. Power is generated during the am. Any excess is then sent back to the utility. The power is purchased at the retail rate and the excess credited at the wholesale rate. The wholesale rate is what utlilties call the avoided cost. The avoided cost is usually half of the retail rate. Therefore the private solar producer is actually lowering the cost of electricity to all customers by providing power at a lower rate than the utility buys from its coal, nuclear, and gas producers. Habitat For Humanity in Denver has installed numerous solar installations for low income families. Michigan is behind the utility revolution because the utilities want to keep making money. Notice the increase in utility scale wind mills.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 12:51pm

Thank you for facts I did not know.

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 1:39pm

"Therefore the private solar producer is actually lowering the cost of electricity to all customers by providing power at a lower rate than the utility buys from its coal, nuclear, and gas producers."

The problem with your statement is that it only helps lower rates if the utility actually needs the additional power and hasn't already anticipated the need and procured it. It that case (which is usual) you are just dumping more into an already overflowing bucket. Because wind and solar power can not guarantee X amount of power on such and such day during this time period, the actual benefit is doubtful and just in fact costs rate payers more!

Stephen Brown
Mon, 03/04/2019 - 9:17am

Indeed, residents of subsidized housing often have utility bills higher than their rent, and Habitat has been doing this for years. Why can't DTE do this, instead of spending ratepayers' money for lobbying and propaganda?

Shining Light o...
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 11:07am

If you don't post my comment, I'm going to call you out for being a shill for utilities and allowing your readers to be manipulated.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 1:42pm

Private solar panel users pay for their use of electricity above what they generate like everybody else. They sell any excess to the power company at retail cost, offsetting their total expense. This is how solarpanels pay for themselves over time.

This “fairness” being touted is a requirement for all private solar panel users to buy ALL of their power from the electric company at retail, and sell all their power to the electric company at wholesale. This removes the main financial incentive to install solar panels, and makes the owners of private solar panels into mere power producing stations for the electric company - with all the related maintenance and repair expenses on the homeowner, not the power company. I am a fan of a distributed grid, but this is an attempt to kneecap the solar power industry and control how people get their electricity.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 1:50pm

The problem is the federal tax code, not the state.
The solar federal tax credit is non-refundable, meaning that it is useless for the vast majority of low and moderate income residents. A simple fix is the make the credit refundable (like the earned income credit). If the federal solar tax credit was made a fully refundable credit, then one should see rooftop solar proliferate in all neighborhoods of the state, not just high income areas. This is not really a state issue.
That benefit of rooftop solar seems to be that it reduces the transmission and distribution infrastructure which should provide savings to society in the long term. It also allows a homeowner's power to stay on (in most cases) when there is major power outage. The main limiting factor for rooftop solar is battery technology; but as batteries continue to get better, rooftop solar will continue to become more popular.

Wed, 02/27/2019 - 9:48am

What the State does has a huge impact on the future of solar in Michigan. Customers with solar panels, like all customers, pay a fixed rate that is supposed to cover costs for the grid. Research has shown that they also provide multiple public benefits - reduced air pollution and grid stability. Michigan can and should make provisions for those who can't afford to install their own panels without losing the benefits of having individual homes with roof top solar. Other states have and are doing that. The problem with the column is that Michigan utilities (like utilities nationwide) have to change their business model and profit source to accommodate renewable energy (reducing the use of coal and natural gas). A well designed regulatory system creates lower rates and less pollution. The fossil fuel billionaires are unhappy with that so relentlessly fund efforts to undermine solar panels by spreading misinformation that pits residents against each other. It is unfortunate when they exploit community groups to push their high profit, high pollution agenda.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 3:48pm

This is easy - take the billions and billions we give to oil companies, who know they'ere choking us all to death, and give it to the solar people.
We would probably have enough money to fix the water for the poor people the state of MI couldnt give 2 hoots about

Paul Jordan
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 3:53pm

Before it gives a podium to groups or individuals like this, the Center for Michigan should require that they provide evidence of who funds them. I'd be willing to bet that "Michigan Energy Promise" is funded by DTE, Consumers, and whatever other big electric companies do business here.
It is fine that they have their say--but we need to know whose opinions are really being shared.

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 10:40pm

You are all so double-talkey and politically correct / incorrect, I cannot even tell what the hell you are saying. Whatever happened to simply saying what you want to say? Pro solar? Anti solar? I cannot even tell.

D. C. Walking
Tue, 02/26/2019 - 11:24pm

The notion that ‘regular’ ratepayers subsidize roof-top solar is a myth concocted and perpetrated by the American Legislative Exchange Council, Edison Electric Institute and their sponsors from the electrical utility industry. Their objective is to kill distributed energy and so continue their monopolies on the production and distribution of electricity from all sources. Mr. Starghill’s affiliation with DTE front group Michigan Energy Promise says all one needs to know regarding his opinions.

M. Curran
Wed, 02/27/2019 - 1:43pm

This is an amazingly bad article. The author never explains what the energy subsidies are and how they work and why it is a cost to low income rate payers. There is not one clear explanation of what he is writing about. I am really shocked that Bridge magazine would print this as it is.

Is he referring to feed-in tariffs, or what? If he is only talking about feed-in tariffs then yes, they are perhaps a bit excessive and should probably be phased out or reduced to the point where they approximate the energy cost paid by other rate payers. But net metering is another matter and should be encouraged. Independent sources costed out net metering (that gave equal KW credit per KW sent tot he grid ) and found that to beneficial to all rate payers and to the utility.

Perhaps this author has failed to do adequate research for his understanding of the situation. If he is merely buying into the position of the big utilities, he is getting a skewed picture of the economics and that is not a service to your readers.

Sat, 03/02/2019 - 5:16pm

this path will kill us all. climate change is real. we need all hands on deck