The Consumers Energy headquarters in Jackson, Michigan. (Photo by Lane Montgomery via Creative Commons)
Michigan’s first proposed large-scale community solar program is coming under fire from clean-energy advocates who say it would prevent independent third parties from developing their own programs.
Within the next month, the Michigan Public Service Commission is expected to rule on Consumers Energy’s proposed 10 MW community solar pilot program, which would be the first program of its kind from one of the two major investor-owned utilities here. Smaller-scale projects are underway or in development elsewhere in the state.
But a group of clean-energy advocacy groups have intervened in the case before the MPSC, claiming that Consumers’ proposal would “monopolize” the community solar market, as the utility seeks to prevent independent third parties from developing projects within its service territory.
(Photo by Jimmy Emerson via Creative Commons)
Utility rate cases have become a major battleground over the future of distributed solar generation and the evolving structure of the nation’s electricity system.
In the Midwest, Wisconsin has been ground zero, with state regulators last year approving three rate cases that made solar much less viable through several mechanisms, including a drastic increase in the fixed monthly charges for all ratepayers, regardless of how much electricity they use.
The next major development on that front will be a case that Xcel Energy is expected to file in late spring or summer. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission has made it clear that it welcomes requests for increased fixed charges and related measures, as RENEW Wisconsin program and policy director Michael Vickerman and other energy experts see it.
But a March 26 decision by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on an Xcel rate case in that state could mean Xcel is unlikely to request the type of fixed rate increase that other utilities in Wisconsin have been granted.
(Photo by avacados via Creative Commons)
A key component of energy proposals emerging from the Michigan legislature is that more robust long-term planning requirements for utilities can effectively replace renewable energy and efficiency standards.
Known as Integrated Resource Plans, Republicans in the House and Senate say requiring utilities to file these every three to five years will produce the most cost-effective resource mix into the future, eliminating the need for meeting goals under a renewable portfolio or energy efficiency mandate.
Formal IRPs are required in 28 states and come in various forms. Typically they are filed every two to five years and forecasts of supply, demand and other market factors can stretch upwards of 20 years.
While experts who follow clean-energy policies say such planning can be helpful in outlining long-term needs for utilities, some argue that — if the goal is expanding renewables or energy efficiency — IRPs are unable to produce the same results as clearly defined standards. Moreover, they are liable to become esoteric exercises in utility planning.
Workers for Mortenson Construction install solar panels at a work site in Arizona. (Photo courtesy Mortenson Construction)
Earlier this year, a major Minnesota construction company announced an agreement with the solar developer SunShare, LLC to collaborate on future projects in the budding community solar garden market.
It should come as no surprise that M.A. Mortenson Company would want a piece of the community solar action, as it has quietly become one of the nation’s leading builders of solar installations.
The company’s solar staff has increased from dozens to hundreds over the past three years, a clear reflection of the industry’s skyrocketing growth.
Solar adds to the company’s growing renewable energy workload, from wind turbines (9,000 turbines producing 15,000 megawatts of power) to transmission infrastructure (33 power line projects).
While Mortenson has agreed to build Sunshare projects in Minnesota the arrangement does not preclude it from working with other developers, said Trent Mostaert, general manager of the Renewable Energy Groups. “We want to help developers build as much solar as possible in Minnesota.”
Westar Energy’s headquarters in Topeka, Kansas. (Image via Wikimedia Commons)
As utilities around the U.S. have sought to increase fixed charges in response to growing numbers of customers generating their own power, a Kansas utility is taking a more targeted approach.
In a case now pending before the Kansas Corporation Commission, customers of Topeka-based Westar Energy with their own solar, wind or other generation will pay a higher fixed charge than other ratepayers.
“We just want to make sure it’s fair to any customer, whether they decide to generate some of their own power or not,” said Jeff Martin, Westar’s vice president for regulatory affairs.
Opponents see the proposal as another effort to fend off competition from residential solar after Westar’s effort to kill net metering ended in a compromise last year.
“This is another attempt by the utility to kill solar in Kansas,” said Aron Cromwell, co-owner of Cromwell Environmental, a Lawrence-based solar installer.
Crews install a natural gas pipeline in southwest Michigan. The future price of gas is a critical variable in determining the cheapest way for states to meet EPA carbon rules. (Photo by Consumers Energy via Creative Commons)
Shifting natural gas prices are making it a challenge for states to place their bets on the most cost-effective and least risky ways to comply with impending carbon regulations.
Those prices could likely determine whether it makes sense to replace retiring coal generation with natural gas or renewable energy.
To help with that decision process, experts at the University of Michigan and a Lansing-based energy consulting firm have released a model to make that planning easier and more accessible to stakeholders beyond just utilities.
Specifically, the model considers the risks that would apply to ratepayers as states develop new combinations of energy sources and efficiency into their portfolios to meet requirements of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan.
According to the study’s lead author, the model “changes a lot of the traditional arguments” about the costs utilities and ratepayers face for achieving compliance.
A Minnesota faith group will announce today an effort to make community solar more accessible to people with lower incomes.
Julia Nerbonne, executive director of Minnesota Interfaith Power & Light, said that early discussions with solar garden developers in the Twin Cities revealed that they will be targeting potential customers with credit scores of 700 or above.
That would leave a substantial portion of the population without access to solar garden subscriptions due to modest to low incomes or past credit problems.
“That’s alarming and people are not talking about it,” she said. “It’s probably less than half the people in country who have a score that high.”
Engineers say an emergency cutoff switch is a redundant feature on inverter-equipped solar arrays. (Photo by mjmonty)
An Iowa bill requiring a safety feature that some engineers say is unnecessary has critics questioning whether the legislation is an attempt to stifle distributed generation.
The legislation, SF 406, would require customer-generators to install an external disconnection device. The device itself would add a few hundred dollars or more to the cost of a solar array or other system, but the bill also would impose daily fines of between $1,000 and $5,000 for any energy generator without one.
The requirement would apply to existing systems as well as new ones, according to state Sen. Tony Bisignano, who introduced the legislation.
Clean-energy advocates in the state have been focused on defeating the bill, which they see as an effort to discourage rooftop solar installations, in particular, by piling on an additional – and needless – cost.
“This is something that’s coming from the utility behemoths through the IBEW (International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers),” said Barry Shear, the president and owner of Eagle Point Solar in Dubuque. “They’re the ones pushing this.”
This former GM plant site in Lansing, shown here in 2006, is among the locations being considered for a 20 MW solar array by the city’s utility. (Photo by Keith Kris via Creative Commons)
Developers and Michigan’s largest municipally owned utility could nearly double the state’s solar energy portfolio by partnering in what would decidedly be the largest single solar project here.
An official with the Lansing Board of Water and Light confirmed with Midwest Energy News Wednesday that the utility has selected a developer for a 20 MW solar project.
The original request for proposals, which was sent out last summer and attracted more than a dozen responses, was for a 5 MW project. The state’s largest solar projects operating or under development are less than 1.5 MW, while roughly 23 MW of commercial-scale solar statewide is tracked by the Michigan Public Service Commission.
Solar currently makes up roughly 1 percent of Michigan’s 2,300 MW renewable energy portfolio, according to the PSC.
(Photo by Michael Kappel via Creative Commons)
Two months after his inauguration, Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has made national headlines for his aggressive efforts to get the state’s budget crisis under control.
Energy and related environment issues have so far taken a back seat, but experts and advocates are watching closely for signs of what the new Republican gubernatorial administration will mean on that front.
Rauner’s draft budget released in February raised serious concerns that money for state energy efficiency and renewable energy projects will be cut and swept into the state’s general fund, as Midwest Energy News reported.
Rauner’s transition report released in January expressed support for a diverse energy mix including renewables, natural gas from hydraulic fracturing (fracking), nuclear and also “clean” coal. It specifically pledged support for energy efficiency, though the draft budget has cast doubts on that commitment.