What Will It Take To Solarize Detroit?

Poorly governed and neglected by turfy utilities, Michigan’s solar infrastructure is barely evolving. Last year, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory analysis (PDF) found that the state’s slow crawl was best summed up in four words: Inefficient permitting and taxation.

But some sun is slowly creeping in, thanks to the Department of Energy’s Sunshot Initiative and Detroit Edison’s SolarCurrents program. Both are designed to make the process of installing solar systems on homes and businesses more efficient for consumers in hopes of kick-starting Michigan’s renewable infrastructure and seeing some of the benefits of solar power in Detroit and other cities.

Every little bit counts. Which is a good thing, because these bits aren’t big enough to push not just Michigan, but all of the United States past competitive superpowers like Slovenia and Estonia in the ranks of nations that use renewable energy to empower their people.

“All states, including Michigan, need to continue to find ways to ‘cut red tape’ and make solar permitting, zoning and interconnection faster, easier and cheaper for the public,” Environmental Law and Policy Center senior attorney Brad Klein told SolarEnergy. “In my opinion, however, permitting and taxation are not the main problems in Michigan right now. We need better state policies and programs, like an expanded Renewable Portfolio Standard, to jump start demand and help the industry grow. Detroit Edison’s SolarCurrents program could help a lot, but it is way, way too small right now to make much of a difference.”

Michigan’s microcosmic approach is no anomaly, as far as the nation’s utilities are concerned. Their business model as profit centers instead of public necessities is under fire from a growing hyperlocal renewable infrastructure independent from their market advantages and manipulations. Even much sunnier and more progressive states like California have public utilities officials brave enough to admit that the utilities are strangling solar. Michigan has just been better at it than most.

“Michigan’s electric utilities, both DTE and Consumers Energy, simply have not been interested in helping the solar industry grow,” argued Klein. “They are still treating solar like an experimental technology [PDF] even though the industry is booming in other states. We’re hopeful that Governor Snyder and other Michigan policymakers will show some leadership on this issue in the coming year, and push the utilities to expand their solar programs. More solar means more jobs, more economic development, and a cleaner environment for everyone in Michigan.”

Republican Governor Rick Snyder, who made his name as chairman of computer manufacturer Gateway, recently argued in his State of the State address (PDF) that job creation has been the cornerstone of his “reinvention” of Michigan as “the comeback state.” Perhaps someone should tell him that the solar sector is adding jobs to the American economy 10 times faster than the national average.

And don’t let climate change’s polar vortexes fool you: Earth is still exponentially, tragically warming. There’s going to enough sun in Michigan for an infrastructural makeover, and then some, for a long time.

“I’d just point out that Massachusetts isn’t so sunny either but is doing great,” Solar Energy Industries Association spokesman Ken Johnson told SolarEnergy. “Massachusetts ranks seventh nationally in installed solar capacity with more than 200 MW.”

“There’s plenty of sun in Michigan for a booming solar industry,” Klein agreed. “Michigan has more sun than Germany, currently the largest solar PV market in the world! Michigan’s sun is comparable with other states that have significant solar markets, such as New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New Jersey.”

“Michigan’s citizens clearly want more clean energy and there is a growing business constituency, so the ball is now in the Governor and Legislature’s court,” he added. “This is not a partisan issue. Politically conservative individuals and groups recognize why it’s important to diversify Michigan’s energy supply, stop importing so much coal, and put more people to work.”

This article appeared at Solar Energy