ANN ARBOR, MI — Bruce Auerbach did his part in the fight against climate change. The 57-year-old Ann Arbor homeowner replaced all of his lights with LEDs, purchased a hybrid vehicle, and in 2016 installed a solar energy system on his roof. However, at the beginning of 2017, Ann Arbor began to implement Michigan’s solar tax, doubling the payback time for his investment in the energy system.
To combat this disincentive, the Energy Commission of Ann Arbor is pushing for a new method of renewable energy production: community solar. Community solar is a solar energy system that is shared by more than one household. It allows investors to purchase or subscribe to a portion of a larger solar installation and credit that against their energy bill.
In February of this year, the Energy Commission passed a community solar resolution and sent a report to City Council to take action. The resolution said to City Council that the city should devote resources to support the city’s community solar projects, according to John Mirsky, 61, a member of the Energy Commission for Ann Arbor. In an interview, Mirsky noted that this resolution will hopefully come in front of City Council in the first meeting of May. If passed, Mirsky expects the city to offer the program by the end of the year.
“I think that really is the future,” Mirsky said about community solar. “Certainly for Ann Arbor, but generally in many places around the country.”
John Freeman, 65, the executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, noted that community solar is becoming more and more popular across the country. “Minnesota has a great one. Colorado has a great one,” Freeman said with regards to community solar programs. “If you go to Minnesota and look at what’s happening there, community solar projects are popping up left and right.”
Freeman argues that community solar is viable for any city, stating that only 25% of homes in the U.S. face south, which is the necessary orientation for powering solar. “This is where community solar comes into play,” he said, highlighting the other 75% of homeowners whose homes are not ideal for solar. “That’s one of the key elements that we need in order to expand solar,” he said.
For Ann Arbor, community solar could be key to reaching the city’s Climate Action Plan, which is to reduce carbon emissions by 25% by 2025 and 90% by 2050, Mirsky noted.
In a presentation, Mirsky showed that solar implementation in Ann Arbor has been flat over the past three years. “We need to be implementing twenty times that level of solar to meet our targets,” he said.
When interviewed, Mirsky explained why community solar is so necessary. “Because of shading issues in Ann Arbor, because about 50% of the people in Ann Arbor are renters, and then you have a lot of people that don’t stay in their home for more than eight to ten years, a lot of people are not thinking of putting solar in,” he said. Mirsky also stated that 75-80% of the Ann Arbor market wants to install solar but cannot afford it.
“Even a renter can do this under some of the programs,” Mirsky stated, explaining that residents can credit the solar energy savings onto their energy bill regardless of the type of housing they live in. Mirsky also said that the program is portable, allowing people to buy into the program even if they do not live in Ann Arbor.
Community members and nonprofits are worried, however, that utility companies like DTE Energy will look to profit from these community solar projects.
Ann Arbor homeowner John Erdevig, 60, was hesitant of the program knowing that DTE would be involved. “Watch what DTE is doing,” Erdevig said. “Every time you deal with DTE there’s a catch.”
However, in an email interview, former DTE employee Ariel Moore, 46, stated that the company’s role in community solar will depend on state law. “DTE will follow the regulations,” she said, “it all pivots on what the rules are.” Moore said the biggest question pertains to the permitting of the community solar programs in the first place.
Mark Clevey, 68, Vice Chair of the Energy Commission in Ann Arbor was equally skeptical about DTE profiting off of the community solar program. “They’re certainly not going to break the rules,” Clevey said, “they write the rules!”
“Right now they pay you four cents per kilowatt-hour for your solar and they turn it around and sell it for fifteen cents to somebody else,” he said. According to Clevey, the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association and other organizations have filed rate cases against DTE, saying the proposed rates are unfair. “I believe that the utilities will be forced by law to have to pay a higher rate for the power, which would make community solar more viable,” Clevey said.
Ann Arbor homeowners Erdevig and Auerbach said that a community solar program would have made investing in solar a lot easier.
“Community options will always be cheaper than individual ones,” Erdevig said, who invested in his own solar energy system in 2011. He said he would definitely favor community solar if he had not yet invested in his own.
Auerbach said he would have invested years ago if there was a community option. “If there was a way for me to get into solar without putting it on the roof, I would” he said, noting the importance for the aesthetics of the home. “The way it looks was also important for my wife.”
Though Auerbach may have to pay extra taxes for his solar energy system, he is still very happy that he invested in solar. For him, the welfare of the planet is worth the extra money.
“I have kids and grandkids,” he said. “So I want to do as much as I can for their future.”