man holding solar panel on roof

Welcome to Ann Arbor Microgrid

This post has been re-printed from the old fourth Ward Neighborhood Association newsletter.

Community controlled decentralized power generation

Let’s start with the definition. A microgrid is a decentralized group of electricity sources and loads that normally operates connected to and synchronous with the traditional wide area synchronous grid, but can also disconnect to “island mode” — and function autonomously as physical or economic conditions dictate – Wikipedia

First of all, community controlled decentralized power generation means that the system is owned and controlled by members of the community, who are served by the power generation. In addition, the sources from where the power is generated and the loads applied to those sources are decentralized. Clusters might work together or independently. While many citizens may not have investigated how microgrids operate and their feasibility, anyone who watches the news is well aware of the devastating effects of centralized power grids during events such as Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the problems with downed power lines causing fires. This summer California residents witnessed rolling power outages which were necessary, just in case a power line were to fall in an electrified area that contained fire prone conditions. Here in Ann Arbor, I have been lucky to not experience power outages specific to the Kerrytown area. But we have family, living in the Water Hill area of Ann Arbor, who experience multiple outages every year.

Let’s begin by reviewing what is already happening in Ann Arbor and Michigan in general. The overwhelming majority of citizens in Ann Arbor appear to be in favor of moving away from fossil fuels, as we can see within A2Zero. The tagline for the city’s effort is “Together, creating and implementing a just transition to carbon neutrality by the year 2030.” A key aspect that has already rolled out is Ann Arbor Solarize, a program with a simple design and a big impact.  They gather neighbors and friends together, along with pre-vetted solar installers, to learn about residential solar, get questions answered, and provide the option to come together to bulk purchase solar, allowing for significant savings.

The Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association (GLREA)  is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that represents individuals, organizations and businesses that support the adoption and expansion of clean renewable energy in Michigan like solar and wind.  GLREA’s mission is to educate and enable homeowners, farmers and business to save money and protect our environment by installing a renewable energy system.  GLREA works to establish policy that supports the free market expansion of renewable energy. The current Secretary, John Sarver, conducts the weekly Zoom conference, MI Solar Story, a series of presentations held every Thursday from 7:00-8:00 pm. Presentations are typically done by a homeowner or other organization that has done a solar panel installation. These presentations are recorded and can be accessed on the GLREA YouTube channel. In this video, you can learn about how a house of worship in Ann Arbor was able to do a complete solar installation without spending a penny. Over $100,000 was raised by members of the congregation who formed an LLC to invest in the solar panel installation and receive a very small interest rate for their loan.  The investors will be repaid in approximately seven years via “utility”  payments made by the house of worship, which are less than amounts previously paid to the electric company. This investor model was able to take advantage of what was previously a 30% federal tax credit.  While that tax credit is decreasing every year, so is the cost of solar panels.

All this may sound very promising for solar energy. However, large enterprises like power companies do not like competition and they are moving far too slowly away from fossil fuels to save our planet in time.  So, there are obstacles that we must overcome. Legal battles are being fought over the rates that a utility company should pay you if you are selling electricity back onto the grid. Typically, people may be connected to the grid, so that during sunny times they can generate more electricity than they use and develop a credit that they use to purchase electricity during times when the Sun is down. The Coalition of Clean Energy Groups that includes GLREA, Vote Solar, and the Environmental Law & Policy Center recently filed briefs in the Consumers Energy case before the MPSC pushing state regulators to conduct a cost-benefit study on the contribution rooftop solar arrays make to the electric grid. As a required part of the rate case, Consumers is transitioning away from net metering; which is being replaced by an inflow/outflow tariff program. The Coalition argues that Consumers is undervaluing what small-scale solar contributes to the grid. The MPSC is expected to issue its final rate case order before the year’s end.

One of the ways to avoid being ripped off by a utility company, which wants to charge you way more for electricity than they will pay you, is to establish a community-owned microgrid, where neighbors are able to sell electricity to each other.  However state laws currently prohibit sending electricity across property lines in Michigan. So, that is another legal battle that we need to fight and elect legislators who are not receiving campaign donations from utility companies or fossil fuel  producers.

 Finally, let me describe the vision for Ann Arbor Microgrid.  The first goal is to educate the residents of Ann Arbor and expand our imagination for what is possible. Part of this will be achieved simply by enabling residents of neighborhoods to connect with each other more easily and thus reach a consensus among common goals, from lobbying their elected representatives to beginning actual concrete projects. We have our own web presence where you can watch videos about Brooklyn Microgrid and see concrete examples of a decentralized community-owned power grid in practice.  Simply register for the website NeighborSquad and join the group for Ann Arbor Microgrid.

I have already begun conversations with Saint Thomas Church about putting a solar canopy over their parking lot.  I showed them a picture of a Whole Foods parking lot in Brooklyn that had a solar canopy. I also told them that if we could solve the legal issues, I’d like to be the first home owner in the neighborhood to buy electricity from them. I live right across the street from the church bell tower! Even if the legal battles to move electricity across property lines take more time than I’d like, I would simply be very happy for the planet if St Thomas did this for themselves.

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