Michigan solar energy workers warn of looming job killer

Business booming, but could be short lived
Posted at 12:48 PM, Dec 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-12-07 10:39:09-05

The sky was gray and a few snowflakes fell as workers climbed up and down a ladder in Canton.

“Michigan is viable,” said Hagerty pointing out the clouds above. “Even on a day like today, we are generating power.”

Hagerty owns Michigan Solar Solutions. His company employs nearly 50 people installing solar panels on homeowners' rooftops and businesses looking to offset their carbon footprint. That work has been booming over the past few years as the cost of materials has dropped. Jobs came with it.

According to the Solar Foundation, more than 4,000 people are employed in the solar industry in Michigan — most of those jobs are in metro Detroit.

Hagerty believes those jobs are now threatened by moves made by DTE Energy. The state’s largest utility is making moves to cut back on incentives that helped drive the solar industry for private homeowners.

“It definitely hurts, and we’ll most likely have to lay off a lot of people when this comes to fruition,” said Hagerty. “If this comes to fruition.”

He said “if” because the moves aren’t locked in. At this point, the moves are part of a rate request made by DTE Energy. The Michigan Public Service Commission is currently reviewing the rate request, a decision isn’t expected until Spring, 2018.

“Years ago, there were incentives put in place to promote early adoption,” explained DTE’s vice president of business development Irene Dimitry. “Years have passed, prices have come down. We still support solar, and if someone wants someone wants private solar on their house we’ll pay them a competitive rate for the energy they put back on the grid.”

Since the early years of solar energy, DTE has paid customers with rooftop solar installations for the power they put back onto the grid. The rate is the same retail rate that customers pay DTE, but the request pending right now would cut that rate.

The move was made possible by a change in Michigan’s laws in 2016. It requires utility providers to increase their renewable energy portfolio but allows them to pay less to the customers who are selling power back to the grid.

While rooftop solar homeowners reduce the carbon footprint, utilities argue that they’re using the grid as if it’s a battery — being paid for energy they put into the grid, subsidizing the energy they take off of it.

The reality is both sides are fueled by business interests. DTE Energy doesn’t want to give away cash for the growing number of green homes coming onto the grid, and the growing solar industry wants to keep incentives flowing so that more homeowners opt to pay upfront of solar installations.

Hagerty warns of similar scenarios that have played out with negative effects — in 2015, Nevada made moves to charge solar homes a higher rate for energy, when the dust settled jobs had been lost and recently the state made moves to reinstitute solar energy friendly legislature.

What happens in Michigan has yet to be determined because the public can still weigh-in ahead of the Michigan Public Service Commissions decision which is expected this upcoming spring.