News of the solar power industry’s growth has been so fast and furious lately that it’s hard to stay on top of it all.
President Obama on Wednesday announced $120 million in new federal investments in solar. “The initiatives focus on the Department of Energy, where the bulk of the funding will go to programs to develop solar power technology and get it into homes, businesses and other facilities,” The Hill reported.
The announcement follows a report earlier this month showing that U.S. solar passed the 20-gigawatt mark in the second quarter of 2015. (One gigawatt is enough to power about 164,000 homes.) The report predicts 7.7 gigawatts of solar will go online nationally this year alone. In the first half of the year, 40 percent of all electric generation brought online nationwide came from solar.
Source: GTM Research / SEIA U.S. Solar Market Insight
Here in Michigan, you can get a feel for solar’s momentum just by scanning the headlines. Frankly, there have been too many announcements lately to keep track of, but here are some highlights:
- Trustees at Michigan State University last week approved what—at this point, anyway—would be the state’s largest solar array. The 10-megawatt project calls for outfitting five campus parking lots with solar panel parking bays. The sun, you may have noticed, shines for free, so the university will lock in a fixed power price for the next 25 years—a move that could save the school $10 million on its power bills.
- Also in Spartan country, Mayor Nathan Triplett said last week that East Lansing and the Lansing Board of Water and Light are closing in on an agreement for a community solar project. In community solar, residents subscribe to a portion of a solar array and receive a share of the returns based on their investment. It allows more residents to invest in local clean energy, even if they don’t have room on their property or in their budget for their own solar installation. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when community solar is coming to East Lansing,” Triplett said.
- On Tuesday, officials from DTE Energy, Domino’s Farms and Ann Arbor Township dedicated what is now the state’s largest solar array. The 1.1-megawatt array of more than 4,000 panels is located at Domino’s Farms, just off M-14 near the interchange with U.S. 23. DTE also is building a 750-kilowatt project in Romulus and is planning an 800-kilowatt array in Ypsilanti. And the company has requested proposals for a project that will generate up to a whopping 50 megawatts and could be online by the end of 2016, the Detroit Free Press reports. Just to drive that point home: In about a year, what today is Michigan’s largest solar array could be dwarfed by an installation 50 times larger. Read more
Two landmark marches for climate justice are coming up in Michigan.
First up is the West Michigan People’s Climate March in Grand Rapids, organized by the West Michigan Environmental Action Council—an MEC member group—and many partners. It begins at 12:30 p.m. this Saturday, Sept. 19, at the Sixth Street Bridge Park. To learn more, register or make a donation, click here.
Then, on October 3, people from across the state will travel to the Detroit March for Justice. That two-mile march from Roosevelt Park to Hart Plaza will begin at noon and wrap up around 4 p.m. RSVP for the Detroit march and find out more here.
The Detroit march is being organized by the Sierra Club and dozens of partners, including MEC and many of our member groups. The new Michigan Climate Action Network is mobilizing people from around the state, including organizing a bus from Traverse City.
We will march for environmental justice because those least responsible for pollution often suffer the worst consequences, such as in southwest Detroit, home to Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, where many residents suffer from asthma and cancer. Families often cannot afford to move to escape pollution from the Marathon oil refinery, toxic coal plants and other industrial facilities built near their homes.
We will march for climate justice because poverty makes it harder for people to adapt to heat waves and recover from extreme weather events. This is true in Detroit, where thousands are still recovering from last year’s floods, and around the world, where the poorest countries are suffering the worst impacts of a changing climate. Read more
Spring temperatures aren’t all that’s heating up in Lansing. With Michigan’s 2008 clean energy laws set to plateau at the end of the year, policymakers are debating a handful of competing proposals for what our state’s energy future should look like. (We say “plateau” and not “expire” because, if lawmakers took no action, utilities would have an ongoing requirement to meet the existing standards.)
Gov. Snyder’s plan calls for as much as 19 percent renewable energy by 2025, along with a significant increase in energy efficiency and a shift away from coal and toward more natural gas. The Democrats have proposed generating 20 percent of Michigan’s electricity from renewable sources by 2022 and doubling the state’s annual energy savings from 1 to 2 percent.
Today the House Energy Policy Committee held a hearing on another package introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt, the committee’s Republican chair. The bills propose a number of actions that would turn back the clock on the economic development, cost savings and carbon reductions Michigan has achieved since 2008. For instance, they would repeal the energy efficiency standard and reclassify hazardous waste materials like scrap tires and railroad ties as “renewable” fuels.
MEC Policy Director James Clift and Energy Program Director Sarah Mullkoff testified at length during today’s hearing, making the case that Michigan needs a comprehensive energy plan that controls costs, maintains electric reliability, minimizes risks to ratepayers like you and me, promotes economic development in Michigan and protects natural resources. (You can view their presentation here.)
Here are five highlights from their testimony:
Households bear the brunt of energy costs. Electricity rates in Michigan have been increasing for years across sectors, but recently those costs have been shifted from large industrial users onto the backs of residential ratepayers. In fact, our residential rates are the highest in the region and among the highest in the country. If the Michigan Public Service Commission grants utilities permission to collect the rate increases they’re now seeking, our residential rates would increase an additional 15 percent over the next three years. On top of that, Michigan taxpayers are subsidizing a fleet of old, inefficient coal plants whose performance is well below the industry average. Read more
When we acquired MEC’s current home in 2012, we committed as an organization to operating our building in a way that embodies the environmental values at the heart of our mission.
We recently completed the newest project in that effort. Srinergy, a solar project developer from Novi, installed eight solar panels on MEC’s south-facing roof, which will generate an estimated 2,839 kilowatt hours (kWh) per year. That will offset about 11 percent of the electricity used each year in our 5,800-square-foot property, which houses 20 full-time workers (employees and tenants) along with several interns and fellows. We’ll save about $400 a year in avoided electric costs.
MEC is implementing this project with financial support from the Wege Foundation of Grand Rapids. In 2013, we invested the first installment of a two-year Wege Foundation grant in an intensive insulation project, state-of-the-art heating and cooling equipment with smart thermostats, and highly efficient plumbing fixtures and toilets. We’ve also implemented procedures to reduce and recycle solid waste and emphasize sustainability in all of our purchasing, from office supplies and cleaning products to coffee and electronics. Together, those measures earned us LEED Platinum Certification, the highest level awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council’s program for existing buildings.
The solar project will further strengthen our building’s environmental performance, as will other upcoming projects. For instance, we’re working on providing ample, convenient bike parking on site. We also have plans to reduce stormwater runoff. We’ll do that by collecting rainwater in a cistern and by replacing some of our asphalt parking spaces with more porous materials that can absorb and filter rainfall, rather than sending stormwater and pollutants straight to the sewer drain. We’ll provide updates on these projects as they develop. Read more
As if making delicious beer wasn’t enough to win us over, America’s craft brewers have also been strong leaders in showing that businesses can thrive while giving back to their communities and finding innovative ways to protect the environment.
Case in point: Two dozen craft brewers announced this week they had signed a Brewer’s Climate Declaration, which says the companies will take action to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions and will engage with policymakers to support political action to halt climate change. Those breweries already are taking steps to reduce energy use, cut transportation emissions and conserve water, among other sustainability measures.
“It’s good for business, it’s not just good for the environment,” Craft Brew Alliance sustainability manager Julia Person told the Huffington Post. “We’re lowering our operating costs. It’s doing the right thing and having a benefit.”
So far, two Michigan companies—Rockford Brewing Company and Brewery Vivant—have signed the declaration.
In reading up about the climate declaration, we were impressed to learn that Brewery Vivant in 2012 became the first brewery in the country to attain LEED certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. We checked in with co-owner and sustainability manager Kris Spaulding to learn more about how the Grand Rapids brewery is striving to support its community and shrink its environmental impact.
Brewery Vivant's Kris Spaulding.
MEC: Why did Brewery Vivant decide to sign on to the climate declaration? More generally, why have you made sustainability such a priority?
Kris Spaulding: Sustainability is one of the values we founded our business on. We believe that a great business exists because of the support of the local community. Therefore a business should be an active member of the community and should strive to find meaningful ways to engage with it and give back to it. These are values we hold personally, but that we believe all businesses should be thinking along the lines of the triple bottom line.
As for the declaration itself, climate change is going to continue to impact our industry and our world so I think it is best to work towards solutions now rather than waiting for more catastrophic events to finally lead to change happening. I like that the declaration challenges businesses to innovate and work towards solutions rather wait and see what someone else will do. Read more
Update 2: The Senate did not take up HB 5205 before the end of the legislative session, so the bill is dead (for now). Thanks to everyone who spoke out against this bad legislation and in support of real renewable energy!
Update: The House has approved HB 5205. Please join MEC in urging your senator to stop this irresponsible bill from moving any further.
The Michigan Environmental Council and Zero Waste Detroit are urging lawmakers to vote down legislation approved by a House committee that would expand the state’s definition of renewable energy to include the burning of hazardous waste, warning that it would harm the health of Michigan residents and hobble the state’s growing clean-energy industry.
House Bill 5205, introduced by Rep. Aric Nesbitt (R-Lawton) and approved this week by the House Energy and Technology Committee he chairs, would amend the 2008 Michigan law that requires utilities to generate 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015. It would put scrap tires, plastics and hazardous materials in the same category as legitimate clean-energy technologies like wind and solar power.
The bill draws its list of fuels that should be considered renewable from a federal administrative rule that has nothing to do with renewable energy. In fact, the rule concerns how the Clean Air Act should be applied to facilities that burn waste materials, including hazardous waste with potentially toxic air emissions.
An amendment to the bill removed petroleum coke—an oil-refining byproduct—from the list of fuels that would be considered renewable. And some of the included materials, such as byproducts from pulp and paper mills, already were considered renewable fuels under the 2008 law. But the bill would add dirty fuels that create serious public health risks when burned. For example, it could include railroad ties, which contain dioxins and other chemicals known or suspected of causing cancer, and demolition waste including wood coated in lead-based paint. Read more
With the sun setting on the New York City skyline behind us, Bill Latka, a filmmaker and leader of the Traverse City chapter of 350.org, read the following passage over the loudspeaker to the 55 exhausted and exhilarated travelers as we began our 18-hour bus ride home: “Organizing a big march is like throwing a rock in a pond: the splash is exciting, but the real beauty is in the ripples.” It was written by one of the organizers of the People’s Climate March, and it rings so true.
The march was exciting, and it was the kind of big splash that can turn the tide of a movement. There were more than 400,000 people marching through the streets of New York. There were so many people that we filled a city street for four miles. There were so many people that those of us in the middle of the pack didn’t even start marching until two hours after the march had begun.
The march was led by indigenous people and frontline communities—the people first- and most-impacted by climate change. Joining them were New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, United Nations chief Ban Ki-moon, former Vice President Al Gore, and celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio. Filling the streets were parents with babies, elementary school classes, senior citizens, marching bands, artists, and 50,000 college students. There were people from all over the world and the U.S., including six busloads of people from Michigan. This really was a people’s march.
Elizabeth Dell of the Citizens Climate Lobby (left) and MEC's Kate Madigan.
On my bus were physicians, teachers, parents, store clerks, retired couples and college students. We chose to sleep two consecutive nights on a bus because we had to get back to our jobs, classes, and young children. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
Many of us working on energy and climate policy looked forward to June 2 like it was Christmas morning. That was the date set for the EPA to announce a new draft rule to cut carbon pollution from power plants, building on the Clean Power Plan President Obama drafted last summer.
Now that we’ve had a couple of weeks to dig into the rule, does it match the hype leading up to it? On one hand, yes: It is undoubtedly the most significant action the U.S. government has taken to address climate change, and it should yield economic benefits and job creation.
On the other hand, the reality of the rule’s impact—at least in Michigan—does not match the sky-is-falling rhetoric opponents to carbon regulation have used to describe it. The rule reaffirms the action Michigan took in 2008 by passing Public Act 295, and meshes well with the clean-energy discussion started by Governor Snyder in 2013.
Still, Michigan will not achieve the required carbon reductions with a business-as-usual approach. We will need to be more aggressive in our transition to renewable energy and in reducing energy waste. Fortunately, MEC is already taking part in discussions in Lansing to outline the next steps for Michigan’s clean energy programs. Read more
Wind turbine near Pigeon, MI
Electricity from renewable clean energy sources in Michigan is at least 26 percent less expensive than comparable coal-fired electricity according to an annual analysis by the Michigan Public Service Commission released this week.
The report also says that state utilities are going to meet the 10 percent renewable electricity goal by the target date of 2015. The highlights are documented in the MPSC’s press release.
The most recent clean energy contracts – primarily wind-powered electricity – are half as expensive as just five years ago, the report concludes. The report uses “levelized cost,” which accounts for initial capital, discount rate, as well as the costs of continuous operation, fuel, and maintenance. Renewable electricity costs are just under $79 per kilowatt hour. Coal costs are $133 according to the MPSC’s estimate, or $107 using Consumers Energy’s figures.
The figures do not take into account “externalized costs” that aren’t reflected in rates – for example, the health care expenses due to coal-burning pollutants are not factored into the figures.
The costs for clean electricity are so low that Consumers Energy is seeking to eliminate its renewable energy surcharge, and Detroit Edison has lowered theirs from $3/mo to 43 cents.
Will hard data dissuade defenders of the status quo from continuing to claim that renewable energy is too expensive? Of course not. Will it be a critical factor in Gov. Rick Snyder’s eventual proposal – expected late this year or early next – on where to go next with renewable energy development? We suspect so.
You can let the governor know you want more of the cheapest and cleanest energy sources by contacting him here. And you can tell your state rep and senator the same thing here and here.
Sarah Mullkoff has been hired as energy program director for the Michigan Environmental Council, the organization’s president, Chris Kolb, announced last week.
Mullkoff has worked in natural resource policy in a variety of capacities, most recently as energy & climate policy coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation. There, she advanced clean energy policies and carbon reduction campaigns for NWF’s six-state Midwest region.
She previously worked for Clean Water Action as Michigan campaigns coordinator; serves on boards of directors for the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association and the Michigan Student Sustainability Coalition; and volunteers for social and environmental justice causes. She also serves on the steering committee for RE-AMP, a 160-strong coalition of Midwest nonprofits and foundations working on energy policy and climate change.
Mullkoff is a graduate of Michigan State University’s James Madison School of Public Policy with a major in International Relations and specialization in Science, Technology, Environment and Public Policy. Read more