Solar-powered electricity can make a big dent in homeowners' utility bills, but the upfront costs can be an insurmountable roadblock for those with modest incomes.
That's why the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) is making it easier to access the benefits of solar energy through the Michigan Solar Communities Low- to Moderate-Income Access Program.
The program run by EGLE's Energy Services aims to reduce barriers for some Michigan homeowners so they can access renewable energy and save money on their utility bills.
Participants buy shares or panels in a community solar array and receive credits on their monthly bills, saving between $20 and $30 a month.
The program was recently named one of 2020's State Leadership in Clean Energy winners by the Clean Energy States Alliance. A panel of independent judges said the program's structure "exemplifies how partnerships between state government and local electric utilities can use community solar to increase low-income access to solar."
Grants totaling $142,000 from EGLE's Energy Services helped to launch the effort in 2018 in conjunction with two local utilities, Cherryland Electric Cooperative near Traverse City and the Village of L'Anse in the Upper Peninsula. The program is led by EGLE Clean Energy Engineer Lisa Thomas.
Cherryland installed 450 solar panels that produce two megawatts of power shared by 50 subscribers. The Village of L'Anse installed 200 solar panels that produce 110 kilowatts of power for 25 subscribers.
L'Anse Village Manager Robert LaFave said the program is an ideal way for members of his community to access clean, locally produced renewable energy.
"It is specifically through the Low- to Moderate-Income Access Program that we have been able to truly make it available to everyone," LaFave said. "Our partnership is critical in addressing energy poverty through a multipronged approach, and builds upon our mission as a municipal electric utility and public power in general to meet the needs and serve our community in a responsive way.
"We are proud to have been a partner in this important project with EGLE and working with our diverse team from WPPI Energy, Michigan Technological University, EGLE, BHK Community Action, the Western U.P. Planning and Development Region, and other stakeholders," LaFave added.
Lisa Ritter, the weatherization manager for the Northwest Community Action Agency in Traverse City, said her group is pleased to be a partner in the pilot program.
"Our clients are not only seeing a reduced financial burden, but they are also reducing their carbon footprint and are actively participating in research into renewable energy options for disadvantaged households," Ritter said. "We hope this will be a growing trend in other communities as the need for clean energy and support for low-income families continues.
"The partnership with EGLE, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services and Cherryland Electric is a great example of collaboration to help those most in need, and highlights community action at its best."
Other benefits include educating customers on how to be energy efficient, improving understanding of renewable energy, increasing health by having healthier homes maintained at a safe temperature and improved air quality, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering the number of late payments and accounts in arrears.
Energy Services is looking for new partners for the next phase of the program.
More information about community solar projects is available at the Office of Climate and Energy's webpage.