Markkanen: House bill would boost home solar, create jobs

Zoom screenshot This graph provided by Steve Prange shows energy costs at his home before and after installing solar panels in 2020. Orange was one of several speakers at a Michigan United press conference Tuesday urging passing of a bill by State Rep. Greg Markkanen eliminating a cap on solar power.

LANSING — State Rep. Greg Markkanen and other state legislators and solar advocates said Tuesday his bill to eliminate caps on small-scale solar power would make the grid more reliable, lower ratepayers’ bills and reduce pollution.

Markkanen, R-Hancock, and others spoke at a virtual press conference on the bill Tuesday. The bill, HB 4236, would remove the cap on how much solar power can be connected to the grid. For most utilities, that stands at 1% of a utility’s average peak electric load over the past five years; Consumers Energy and the Upper Peninsula Power Co. (UPPCO) voluntarily lifted the cap to 2%. Half of that cap is limited to residential users, with the other half going to larger installations.

Tuesday’s conference, organized by Michigan United, was aimed at rallying public pressure on energy companies and House Energy Committee Chair Joseph Bellino to support the bill.

“Customers should not be deincentivized from helping make the grid more reliable,” said Eric Ini, environmental justice director for Michigan United. “This cap is a slap in the face to the free market and to our individual liberty.”

In 2019, distributed energy program installations, which include wind and solar, had generated 66,428 kilowatts, up 53% from the year before, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission. Markkanen, vice-chair of the committee, said lifting the cap would allow residents in his district to generate electricity and generate thousands of jobs across the state.

“In Marquette with Peninsula Solar, they do about 80 setups a year,” he said. “If the cap was lifted, they could triple or quadruple that a year and put on a couple more crews.”

Two of the bill’s co-sponsors also spoke on the benefits eliminating the cap would bring.

Along with the benefit to jobs and the environment, allowing more homeowners to generate power would improve reliability, said Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor.

“When the power goes out, people’s lives are on the line, whether it’s in a senior housing development that doesn’t have air conditioning, or people that are trying to keep their medicine refrigerated,” Rabhi said. “We need people’s power to be able to stay on. We need a grid that’s more resilient.”

Rep. Padma Kuppa, D-Troy, said the bill would help make Michigan more competitive with neighboring states, which do not have a cap on generated solar energy.

“Really what we want is to elevate this issue so that we do get a hearing and a vote on this bill, because it will give a lot of people relief in energy costs and it will also help with our environment,” she said. “Right now with the backdrop of the Climate Change Global Conference, it’s really important that we too in Michigan do our part.”

Rabhi also backed eliminating the grid tariff instituted in 2016, where people sell their energy to the electric grid at the wholesale rate and buy it at the retail rate. He called for the state to return to the prior practice of net metering, where users only paid for the difference between what they used and what they generated.

Steve Prange, a retired engineer and solar advocate, showed charts displaying his level of savings since installing a network of 16 330-watt panels and a Tesla Powerwall 2 battery at his home in 2020. His average monthly bills had gone from $104 pre-solar to $34 post-solar so far.

The installation had defrayed cost increases from his power company, DTE, which he said had gone up 22.7% over the past five years.

The internet-connected battery is also able to charge from the grid in advance of a storm. After a storm on DTE, Prange ran off stored and solar power for 45 hours while DTE’s supply was down.

“We’re glad we supported a local renewable energy business and are reducing our impact on the environment,” he said. “We would like other people in Michigan to have the same opportunity that we’ve had.”

Lashay Darisaw, a community organizer and community solar advocate, said existing fossil fuel power plants were disproportionately concentrated in areas with higher minority populations, which in turn develop higher rates of conditions like asthma and hypertension. Removing the 1% cap would alleviate those problems, and the pressures that threaten the electricity access of low-income and minority populations.

“Access to energy is a human right, and yet people in both inner cities and rural Michigan are unjustly at risk for shutoffs and outages,” she said. “Removing this cap would help thousands of lives.”

Erica Larsen, a sales engineer with The Green Panel, a Michigan-based solar installation company, said on average she talks to six to 10 new customers a day. She called the cap a “fundamental violation of progress.”

“Eliminating the DG cap would allow the continued development of renewable energy, will stabilize our energy independence, foster a growing job market and create a healthier environment for us all,” she said.

Markkanen introduced the bill in February, when it was referred to the Energy Committee. He and other speakers said the bill was being held up by committee chair Rep. Joseph Bellino, R-Monroe. Ini highlighted energy company’s campaign contributions to Bellino; state records showed since the start of 2020, he has received $8,500 from the PAC of CMS Energy, which owns Consumers Energy, and $4,000 from the DTE Energy PAC.

In House testimony on the bill earlier this year, several energy companies opposed the bill, which they said could unfairly shift the burden of costs to people without solar panels.

In a statement Tuesday, Bellino said he was still looking at the topic.

“There’s a very fine line to be found here that gives the solar industry room to grow without causing a big cost shift to consumers,” he said. “We have been very close a couple times in negotiations with stakeholders, and I think we can get there, but I will not pass this bill out of committee until it is ready. I do not want it to simply die on the floor and have it all be for nothing.”

If the bill does get out of committee, Markkanen believes it has enough support in the Legislature and from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who had contacted his office several times to check on the bill’s status. Climate change has led to increased levels of storms, such as ones that knocked out power to thousands of customers in Michigan last summer. The fresh memory of those storms could also help passage, he said.

Markkanen, whose son works in Texas, remembered how those with solar power had fared better during last winter’s Texas storms than those who relied on the grid.

“With community solar, with rooftop solar across Michigan, people would have control over their energy generation … I just want to see that cap lifted,” he said. “I want to see increased public pressure on Consumers Energy and DTE and the Energy Committee as well because that’s what it’s going to take to move this forward.”


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