State Rep. Yousef Rabhi and state Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, discussed the implications of solar energy generation Monday at a town hall meeting. More than 50 community members gathered to provide input on recent legislation regarding solar energy usage.

Irwin began the event by explaining the background of clean energy and defining the concept of “net metering.”

“What (net metering) basically meant is that if you wanted to generate energy at home for a solar panel or something else and you plug this energy back into the grid, the utilities would net the energy use,” Irwin said. “If you were generating more energy than they were using, they would bank it. If you were using more than you were generating, you’d withdraw from that bank… and pay them for the excess.” 

The issue at hand is that major utility companies such as DTE are pushing for the shut-down of net metering, Irwin said.

Irwin elaborated on the inability of individuals to adopt solar energy due to the desires of utility companies. After utility companies pushed for the elimination of net metering, the legislature ruled that the Michigan Public Service Commission would enforce an “inflow, outflow” policy. In other words, if one were to draw energy from the grid, they would pay full retail costs.

On the other hand, by contributing excess energy to the grid, one would be paying back approximately half the amount of full retail. By this policy, the utility companies have slowed the development and deployment of solar in Michigan. They have also made the payback of a solar energy investment more unpredictable, leading to uncertainty about investing, and have decreased the price paid for excess power. 

“The long-term goal is to unshackle the Michigan residents from fossil fuels,” Irwin said. “It’s pretty absurd that we continue to rely upon fuels that we import to meet our energy needs. It would be much more environmentally wise and in the long-term much more economically wise if we were to develop and invest in home-grown clean renewable sources.” 

In addressing these problems, Rabhi discussed the Energy Freedom Package and Powering Michigan Forward Package — two sets of bills to tackle resistance to solar energy use in the community. Through the Energy Freedom Package, more conservative-minded libertarians may be drawn to the idea of personal choice and freedom of generating power, Rabhi said. 

In the Powering Michigan Package, there are three bills. House Bill 5143 discusses the importance of fair-value pricing by requiring the MPSC to establish a tariff that analyzes the distribution of solar energy and compensates users on the net amount of energy that they use. House Bill 5144 eliminates the inflow/outflow calculation in order to make paybacks for solar investment much more predictable. Finally, House Bill 5145 eliminates the current 1 percent cap on the number of individuals allowed to generate and contribute clean energy. 

Craig Afreekans Jr., a fellow for the organization “Friends of the Earth” is studying community mapping to discover who is contributing to a cleaner future. Afreekans Jr. said the bill eliminating the 1 percent cap extends benefits to more low income individuals and individuals of color.

“I think that in terms of the bills that I really like, I really like the House Bill 5145, the one that eliminates the 1 percent cap,” Afreekans Jr. said. “Because if only 1 percent of people are benefitting from the net metering cap that utilities companies have out, it’s not really for the state. It’s just for a few select people…and that doesn’t really mean people of color or people of low income.”

After the lecture portion of the event wrapped up, Rabhi and Irwin answered questions about the need for emergency off-grid energy sources in major buildings, the importance of wind power in states like Michigan and the cost of energy for electric vehicles. 

Jay Nugen, a do-it-yourself hobbyist who has a passion for adopting solar energy sources in his house, posed a question about how DTE would benefit if the entire state of Michigan were to adopt solar energy.

Irwin said DTE would have the opportunity to fill the need for power grid backups.

“I think there is a need for the grid to be managed and there will probably also be a need for power to be backed up and I think they have an opportunity to fill that need,” Irwin said. “They could be the ones who lead this transition and I think there could be a tremendous amount for their shareholders to benefit if they were to lead this transition for us.”

In an interview with The Daily after the event Rabhi and Irwin noted their short-term and long-term goals in making sure that the utility companies realize that more people must start adopting solar power.

“I think it’s two-fold — one is reclaiming power for the people and (the second) is ensuring that we have a clean and sustainable energy future,” Rabhi said. 

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