Issues Of The Environment: Washtenaw Community College Joins With DTE To Achieve Carbon Neutrality

Jul 14, 2021

Brian Calka, director of renewable solutions for DTE Energy.
Credit DTE Energy / dteenergy.com

Washtenaw Community College has announced it plans to run 100% on renewable energies by the year 2029. In part, it plans to get there by signing on to  DTE Energy's MIGreenPower program. The utility's renewable solutions director, Brian Calka, joined  WEMU's David Fair to discuss the agreement with WCC, the program itself, and DTE's plans for a more sustainable, renewable energy future. 


Overview

  • MIGreenPower is a voluntary renewable energy program that enables DTE Electric customers to attribute a percentage of their energy use to DTE’s wind and solar projects.
  • The program was launched in May 2017 and has experienced significant growth, particularly over the past two years. MIGreenPower is now among the top voluntary programs in the country. Today, more than 33,000 residential customers and 350 businesses are enrolled in the program. In terms of impact, MIGreenPower customers have supported 1.8 million megawatt hours of clean energy generation, avoiding 1.4 million tons of CO2 or the greenhouse gas emissions from 277,000 cars driven for a year. 
  • In April 2021, DTE brought three new wind parks online as a result of clean energy commitments from MIGreenPower corporate and industrial customers including Ford, General Motors, and the University of Michigan.
  • Beginning in 2022, DTE will be adding several new large scale solar projects to source additional MIGreenPower clean energy commitments, including the one made by Washtenaw Community College.
  • Washtenaw Community College is the first community college to enroll in MIGreenPower. The college has committed to an escalating enrollment that will begin in 2023 and increase annually with the college attributing 100% of its energy use to renewables by 2029.
  • Washtenaw Community College’s clean energy commitment is part of their broader sustainability efforts which include installing occupancy sensors in classrooms and offices; eliminating incandescent lamps; increasing campus recycling programs; composting food and yard waste; installing EV charging stations; and following the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building rating system for all new and remodel building projects.

Official Announcement:

Washtenaw Community College announced the college’s enrollment in DTE Energy’s MIGreenPower voluntary renewable energy program

DTE Energy and Washtenaw  Community College (WCC) announced the college’s enrollment in DTE Energy’s MIGreenPower voluntary renewable energy program. MIGreenPower provides DTE customers with an easy, low-cost option to access more clean energy without installing onsite generation. The first community college to enroll in the  program, WCC has committed to an escalating enrollment that will begin in 2023 and increase annually with the college sourcing 100% of its electric power needs  through clean energy by 2029.  

“Protecting our precious resources for generations to come is a critical role for all of  us. WCC is thrilled to partner with DTE as the first community college in Michigan to  participate in MIGreenPower to accelerate our longtime commitment to these  efforts,” said WCC President Dr. Rose B. Bellanca. 

WCC has aggressively pursued a campus-wide environmental sustainability plan for  the past decade with the intent of achieving a carbon neutral footprint, including  signing the American Colleges and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment and  outlining long- and short-term goals. 

The college’s clean energy commitment is part of WCC’s broader sustainability  efforts that include installing occupancy sensors in classrooms and offices;  eliminating incandescent lamps; implementing a comprehensive campus recycling  program; composting food and yard waste; installing electric vehicle fueling  stations; and following the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)  green building rating system for all new and remodel building projects.  

Additionally, WCC has been recognized by the Arbor Day Foundation for its campus  tree care program for five years in a row. With more than 1,600 trees across its  147 acres of maintained grounds, WCC has an active forest management program  that includes student service-learning opportunities, a tree advisory committee and  a campus tree-care plan.  

“Washtenaw Community College is one of our area’s top community colleges,” said  Brian Calka, director of DTE’s Renewable Solutions team. “We know they are  committed to supporting the educational goals of the more than 21,000 students  they serve each year, and we are excited they have enrolled in MIGreenPower to meet the environmental goals that are also important to their faculty, students,  staff and supporters.”  

Among the top three voluntary renewable energy programs in the country, DTE’s  MIGreenPower program provides customers with a flexible and affordable way to  reduce their carbon footprint and support more local renewable energy  development. Since the program’s inception, MIGreenPower subscribers have  supported 1.8 million megawatt hours of clean energy, avoiding more than 1.4  million tons of CO2 or the greenhouse gas emissions from 277,400 passenger cars driven for a year.

To learn more about Washtenaw Community College, visit www.wccnet.edu. For more information on DTE’s MIGreenPower program, please visit www.migreenpower.com.  

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 One WEMU and welcome to Issues of the Environment. Washtenaw Community College plans to completely run on renewable energy by the year 2029. Now, how's it going to get there? I'm David Fair, and the school recently announced it is the first community college in Michigan to enroll in DTE Energy's MIGreenPower Program. Our guest today is here to help explain how it's all going to work and what the utility is doing to help build the state's energy future. Brian Calka is director of renewable solutions at DTE Energy. And, Brian, thanks so much for joining us today.

Brian Calka: Well, thank you for having me this morning.

David Fair: I imagine Washtenaw Community College signing on to the MI Green power program and becoming the first in the state to do so is not only a big step for the school, but for DTE, too. How did this agreement come about?

Brian Calka: Really, the agreement came about just due to, I guess, the convergence of two separate companies wanting to make a difference as it relates to climate change. We and Washtenaw Community College have had a really great relationship for a number of years, and they rolled out a general sustainability plan on how they were going to to make a difference as it relates to combating climate change. And they were looking as part of that plan for a methodology on how they could attribute their onsite electric usage to renewable energy. So that's where DTE comes into play and that we'd look at climate change and addressing climate change as one of the most defining public policy issues of our era. And we've gone it through our strategies here in the state and have built out and procured a number of renewable projects. And as part of our overall carbon neutrality aspiration, we have a voluntary renewable program called MIGreenPower. And what MIGreenPower is a very accommodating, flexible program or institution or automotive companies or even residential customers to attribute their electric usage towards renewable energy. We build the project, connect them into the grid, and we use the program to green up the grid. And Washtenaw Community College found that program to meet their needs. And that's how the relationship started and culminated here recently with their official enrollment into the program.

David Fair: As I understand it, it is going to be an incremental ramp up to get to 100 percent use of renewable sources by 2029. Where does it start, and how incremental will the stages be?

Brian Calka: If they start off at, you know, at a at a percentage right around 20 percent, and then you can just generally state that they're going to be increasing at 10 percent to 15 percent every year to the point that they hit 100 percent of their usage being attributed to renewable energy here by the end of the decade.

David Fair: Why is it a process that comes in those kinds of stages instead of a more rapid transition?

Brian Calka: Yeah, so there's a number of attributes that go into the decision-making process for all of our of our customers, and one of the pieces that plays a significant role is the budgetary impact on any potential enrollee into the program. And they felt that they wanted to ramp up slowly just due to some of the economic implications of any such enrollment. And they built out a very customized plan for themselves that allows them to hit the carbon neutrality milestones that they want to hit in a very cost-effective means through the end of the decade.

David Fair: So does that mean that it is going to be an expensive proposition for WCC before the savings start to roll in?

Brian Calka: No, we view the program to be a very cost-effective way to attribute renewable energy or attribute on-site electric usage to renewable energy. And one of the ways that we're able to do that is by building these universal scale renewable project in areas that have the most sunlight or who have the strongest winds for our wind parks and by building large scale projects in these very productive areas of the state allows us to bring the cost of renewable energy down to very, very cost-effective levels. So, you know, to answer the question specifically, it's not an expensive proposition in terms of enrolling in the program, but it is a slight premium above and beyond what the electric bill would be otherwise.

David Fair: Issues of the Environment and our conversation with DTE Energy's Brian Calka continues on Eighty-Nine One WEMU. Now, ultimately, going totally to renewable should result in some cost savings in the long term. Have any estimates been projected out to see what kind of savings that would bring over the decades?

Brian Calka: We utilize a number of third-party industry experts to provide, you know, forecast on what the value of renewable energy would look like for both the energy itself that is put onto the grid, but also just the capacity benefit that solar, in particular, brings. Because when we have those hottest days, the three, four o'clock sticky high humidity day that, in theory, is when solar is at its optimal output, that's when it's really producing a lot of electricity and there's value to that from the capacity standpoint. So, when you look at, you know, you look at all these industry forecasts, you know, it's closer to the end of this decade where the forecasts are indicating where the savings could be coming from. That is when we view the cost of the renewable projects themselves to be more than offset by the value of the energy and the capacity from the renewable projects themselves.

David Fair: DTE says it will have retired 11 of its 17 coal-fired power plants by 2023. There will be more natural gas production and distribution, more wind and solar, and nuclear will still be a part of the energy equation as well. Is there a plan or even a desire by the utility to take it entirely renewable within a generation or two?

Brian Calka: Absolutely, we were one of the first utilities to come out with some of these aggressive, net-zero carbon emission targets here by 2050, and we are constantly looking at the best, most economic ways that are going to still lead to very reliable energy production for our customers to hit that. And, you know, we're looking at a lot of technology changes as part of this that you have when you have solar technology. But the key element here is the storage component. And, right now, we're running a number of pilots to understand the cost implications of storage, trying to look at what the adoption rates and the interest levels from our customers would be related to storage. And we view that as a critical piece of the puzzle over the long run to help us get there. And the value of storage is that when you have an overabundance of renewable energy generation during the day or the night and it's more than you actually need, finding a way to store it, which then that storage can be deployed during the times of the day in which you need more renewable energy to be put onto the grid. Once we get to that particular point, it's going to open up a lot more opportunities for everybody to utilize more renewable energy to meet their their needs.

David Fair: This is 89 One WEMU, and we're talking with DTE Energy's Brian Calka on Issues of the Environment, and, as you mentioned, the state of Michigan has a goal of getting to carbon neutrality by 2050. Part of that solution is going to be residential rooftop solar. DTE has said it supports rooftop solar, but it's also lobbying lawmakers to keep a cap on the amount of energy that residents are allowed to return to the grid and get reimbursement for. Why that approach from DTE?

Brian Calka: We're in a number of conversations right now related to the cap and to the cost of what we compensate people for putting energy back onto the grid from their rooftop solar. One of the major—

David Fair: The cap right now is one percent, by the way. One percent.

Brian Calka: That is correct. It's one percent. I wouldn't say that we're against that cap increasing. However, in doing so, we must eliminate subsidies that are being provided from the average customer on our system to those customers who decide to put rooftop solar on their roof. We struggle with burdening customers who struggle to pay their bills with costs that really should not be borne by them, but should be borne by customers who decide to put rooftop solar. That is a very it's a very individual-based decision, but it's something that we support as part of the solution to get to carbon neutrality.

David Fair: There are a number of states around Michigan that have no cap at all. Are the utilities here in Michigan facing something different?

Brian Calka: The utilities here in the state of Michigan, I think, the motivations aren't all that different from state to state. But what you'll find from the individual states here across the country is just the financial compensation, the mechanisms, and how rooftop solar customers are compensated for the energy are fundamentally different. So we're just trying to align our structure to what's appropriate and fair for all the customers who are involved.

David Fair: Now, among those who would disagree with you are State Representative Yousef Rabhi and State Senator Jeff Irwin, both of whom are from Ann Arbor. Is there any circumstance under which DTE would reassess and back the legislative proposals they've put forth to eliminate such caps?

Brian Calka: You know, I'm not all that involved in those conversations. I just know that we are working with a broad set of stakeholders, both legislatively and through our regulatory commission, as well as our peer utilities here in the state of Michigan to find an ultimate solution that is palatable for all the critical stakeholders.

David Fair: Well, to end in the area where we began, Brian, what in your estimation should be the takeaway for the general public with Washtenaw Community College signing on to the MI Green Power program?

Brian Calka: As I mentioned earlier in our discussion, that we at DTE view climate change and addressing climate change as one of the, if not the most, defining issue of our era, and everybody should be looking at this as an opportunity to change how they behave or to sign up for different types of programs that will help them reduce their particular carbon footprint. Our MIGreenPower program appeals to every one of our two point two million customers in southeast Michigan. It's convenient in that you don't have to spend significant dollars up front to, for example, put a solar array on your roof. There's no concerns over ongoing maintenance. And it's the most cost effective way to attribute electric usage to renewable energy from projects that are located here in the state of Michigan. We have thirty three thousand residential customers enrolled, more than 350 business customers who are enrolled. Some of the names we're all very familiar with, Ford, General Motors, the University of Michigan, Bedrock, the state of Michigan just enrolled their facilities into the program. And then you get to customers like Washtenaw Community College who find that MIGreenPower is is a great solution for them to reduce their carbon footprint as it relates to their onsite electric usage. So we'll go to our--I'm sorry. Go ahead.

David Fair: Go ahead.

Brian Calka: If you go to our website, M-I green power dot com -- again, M-I green power dot com--, you can learn more about the program, and you can even enroll from that website with a few clicks.

David Fair: But for those that do exactly that but find themselves hesitant, what would you say to them to overcome the hesitancy and become a part of the MIGreenPower program?

Brian Calka: I think a lot of it is just education, it's trying to understand what the program is and what is not is not about putting panels on your roof or in a field next to your home or your business and then running a cable. This is about cost-effective, headache-free way to attribute electric usage to renewable energy in the state and greening up the broader electric grid. If you go to that website, there is a way that you can ask questions, and it goes right to my team. And we are extremely responsive in addressing those questions, because we don't want people to be signing up to a program that they're confused about or that they don't understand. Our motivation here is to help everybody clearly understand what the program is about and how they can make a difference as an individual.

David Fair: Thank you so much for the time and the information today, Brian. I appreciate it.

Brian Calka: Thank you for the opportunity. You have a good day.

David Fair: That is Brian Calka, director of renewable solutions at DTE Energy and our guest on Issues of the Environment. For more information on the MIGreenPower Program and Washtenaw Community College's plan to get to 100 percent renewable energy by 2029, visit our website at WEMU Dot Org. This weekly interview series is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner, and it's heard each Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is 89-1 WEMU FM and WEMU HD One Ypsilanti.

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— David Fair is the WEMU News Director and host of Morning Edition on WEMU.  You can contact David at 734.487.3363, on twitter @DavidFairWEMU, or email him at dfair@emich.edu