State-led work group to review Michigan utilities’ stake in solar

The economics of solar power in Michigan — and whether DTE Energy Co. and Consumers Energy Co. are putting enough corporate energy behind a rebate program that encourages solar use by residential and commercial customers — is under review by a state work group.

The Michigan Public Service Commission last month upheld a two-year renewable energy plan proposed by DTE but ordered the Detroit-based utility to participate in a community work group that could recommend expanding the number of participants in DTE’s SolarCurrents program. The program is for customers who purchase and install solar energy systems.

Jackson-based Consumers, the state’s second-largest utility, voluntarily agreed to participate in the same work group on solar energy. The group’s first meeting was Feb. 4.

DTE initially rejected being part of the group in a Nov. 5 regulatory filing, saying the group has no authority to modify DTE’s energy plan. However, DTE officials told Crain’s last week it would work collaboratively with the group. The PSC will appoint the work group members.

“We have a SolarCurrents program, and we believe it is running well and meeting the objectives of a pilot program,” said Irene Dimitry, DTE’s vice president of marketing and renewable energy.

“We will be ready if costs come down significantly” to expand the program, Dimitry said. “Right now, solar is still extremely expensive compared with other (forms of renewable energy). It is eight to 10 times more expensive (after incentives) than utility-owned wind,” based on customer solar project invoices DTE has seen.

The work group’s report is expected to be completed by July, said Judy Palnau, a PSC spokesman.

The report will recommend whether to expand DTE’s SolarCurrents program and Consumers’ comparable Experimental Advanced Renewable Program, or EARP. Both programs provide financial incentives for residential and business customers to build and install photovoltaic systems.

Key questions from the PSC deal with whether the utilities have enabled enough interested customers to participate, and with the programs’ pricing structures.

The renewable energy lobby, meanwhile, seeks to stimulate the state’s manufacturing and installation industries and considers increased rebate programs a part of that strategy.

Dianne Byrum, partner at East Lansing-based political advocacy firm Byrum & Fisk Advocacy Communications, said the future of energy in Michigan must focus on more than just one type of alternative energy. But if customers are asking for more solar energy, utilities should adapt to that, she said.

Source: Crains Detroit Business


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