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The Green Room: Spurring Local Solar Development

Michigan gets more sunlight than Germany. Why does that matter? Germany happens to be the world leader in solar installations.  But we lag far behind Germany in terms of how much of our solar energy we harness.  In this segment of WEMU’s “The Green Room,” Barbara Lucas looks at factors that may spur more local folks to go solar.


BL:  We stand atop the roof of the Ecology Center building in downtown Ann Arbor. David Wright is a member of the Ann Arbor Energy Commission, and today he’s volunteering, helping install a new solar energy collection system. We are surrounded by a sea of flat, sunny rooftops.

BL:  What do you think about the potential, as you look around… how many of these buildings do you think could have it? 

Wright:  Well, as we look down State here, pretty much everything down the block here.

BL:  So much sun, so few panels!  But apparently, cost can be a stumbling block.

BL:  I wonder why they didn’t put more here?  They’ve got a lot of space. 

Wright: We do have space here, but the panels were donated, so we had what we had.  I know the Ecology Center would like to see more. 

BL:  An aerial analysis showed that at least 18,000 roofs in Ann Arbor are good candidates for solar. But not everyone has enough sun, or money, to install solar panels.  Wright tells me about an arrangement that might help those who don’t.

Wright:  The Public Service Commission is looking into developing community solar projects where you would have an array at a central location and individual community members could purchase anywhere from one panel to ten panels or more, if they desire, and they would get that credited to their bill.

BL:  Wright says so far there’s only one community solar program in the state, and it’s in Traverse City. In the meantime, there are some in the area who have taken the solar plunge on their own roofs. Ecology Center employee Tracey Easthope and her spouse John DeHoog, among them.

BL:  They’re thrilled that their solar system generates enough energy, on a yearly average, to fully cover their electricity bill. We go outside to check out their meter. When DeHoog goes back in to turn off the kitchen lights, sure enough, a negative sign appears.

Easthope:  It went negative.

DeHoog: It went negative? Excellent! 

Easthope:  We are sending power back to DTE right now.  And it’s reading all the time so you are getting constant measures of what is happening, so that is satisfying.

BL:  That takes care of the electric, but still only amounts to half their home’s carbon footprint.  Why not put up more solar panels?  It turns out, state law prevents you from selling back more electricity than you use.  State Representative Jeff Irwin of Ann Arbor hopes to remove that disincentive.

Irwin:  Recently I introduced a bill called the fair value pricing bill to ensure that residents who generate more electricity than they use are paid a fair price—a fair market-based price—for the extra energy.

BL:  The proposal is part of the “Energy Freedom” package, which has bipartisan sponsorship.  The 53rd District Democrat says the freedom to generate your own power has wide appeal.

Irwin:  It's also about rights! Now we have a heavily regulated monopoly system whereby the utilities have captured the customer base.  It certainly is contrary to the political ideology of a lot of the conservatives in Lansing who really cling very closely to market-based approaches.

BL:  Irwin contends we shouldn’t have to jump through hoops to do the right thing.  Challenges and options are discussed by on a solar tour sponsored by Michigan Interfaith Power and Light.  First stop is the Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor, whose solar panels were installed by Dave Friedrichs.

Friedrichs: There is a federal tax IRS legislatively-endorsed proposal since 2008 for 30% credit back for any investment in solar.

BL:  Sounds great, but he says the 30% federal incentive is available through 2016, and although homeowners and businesses qualify, churches don’t. 

Friederichs:  You're not going to get a tax credit at a 501c3.

BL:  The next stop is the First Presbyterian Church in Saline, where we sit in their chapel adorned with newly installed stained-glass windows.  Kurt Leutheuser says when asking for donations, they won over skeptical congregants by telling them…

Leutheuser: You don’t have to participate.  This may not be your thing.  You might have been interested in the stained-glass and want to sit this one out.  That’s OK. 

BL:  He acknowledges that their system’s 15-year payback bothers some, but not all.  Peter Boeve asks…

Boeve:  What does this have to do with Jesus? God really wants us to be tending and caring for the planet in a responsible and caring way and here we are busy at points destroying it, destroying the basis of life.  And we can say this is a small, little piece of tending to the garden of creation. 

BL:  The sentiment extends beyond church walls. Easthope and DeHoog, too, are undaunted by the payback period.

Easthope:  At this point, given what we know about global warming I feel that we should be doing everything we possibly can.  It's an investment that feels so good!  I mean you really feel happy about what you did, and so that’s not true of a lot of investments that we make. 

BL:  Easthope says to truly get solar efforts moving, public policy has to change.

Easthope:  Make the right thing easy and make the wrong thing harder!  

BL:  That concept is embraced by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby.  It advocates a carbon fee placed at the point of fossil fuel extraction.  That in turn would make carbon-intensive products and lifestyles more expensive. 

BL:  Six members of the Ann Arbor chapter of the Citizens’ Climate Lobby are seated in a circle listening to a monthly group call, along with thousands of others from the hundreds of chapters nationwide.  Louis Merlin is among the participants. 

Merlin:  So if you put an extra cost onto oil and coal and natural gas, all of those things become more expensive, so solar becomes relatively more competitive. 

BL:  He believes money spent on droughts, rising sea levels, and severe storms caused by climate change should be figured into the costs of fossil fuels.

Merlin: I guess I see it as a way of making the costs from hidden to visible. I mean, what makes more sense than, “You clean up the mess that you made!” That's what I teach my kids, right?

BL:  Merlin contends a carbon fee would spur energy conservation and research into renewables, and would take the place of solar tax incentives.

Merlin:  Getting the prices right creates that built-in incentive not just for businesses and inventors and engineers to make new products to take advantage of this opportunity.

BL:  How would the plan affect household budgets?  Mark Reynolds, Executive director of the national Citizens’ Climate Lobby, says their proposal is called “revenue neutral” because…

Reynolds: We want to take every single dollar and send it back to American households.  Two-thirds of households actually come out even or better off.  So which two-thirds of the population would that be?  Anyone with a moderate carbon footprint!

BL:  Regardless of the future of a carbon tax, Easthope and DeHoog say with the current 30% solar tax credit, the electricity produced can cover monthly loan payments. 

Easthope:  It's amazing to me, once we did this we started looking around and we thought, “What is going on, why doesn't everyone have these?!”  That's how we look at houses now, “They would have great solar here!”

BL:  They hope the word gets out that at least one form of payback is immediate, and long-lasting.

Easthope:  The excitement hasn’t worn off for us either, we're still excited.

DeHoog:  Every time I pull in the driveway I'm so proud of our solar system!


Michigan Interfaith Power and Light

The Ecology Center

The Unitarian Universalist Church of Ann Arbor Renewable Energy page

The First Presbyterian Church of Saline’s solar system

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby

Video of Ann Arbor Chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (on CTN Access Ann Arbor)

Barbara received a master's degree in Environmental Policy from the University of Michigan. She began her association with WEMU in 2003 as an intern with Washtenaw County, assisting with the weekly "Issues of the Environment" show. In 2003 she also began working in documentary film, and later established her own video production company.