DTE, Consumers Energy want customers to subscribe for green energy

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Michigan's two largest utility companies are encouraging Michigan residents to pay a few dollars extra each month to get their power from renewable sources and accelerate the state's adoption of renewable energy sources.

Together, CMS Energy Co.'s Consumers Energy and DTE Energy Co. are launching the MI Community Solar education campaign. They are calling it a first-in-the-nation initiative that will educate residents on existing and future opportunities to participate in renewable energy programs through a regulated and shared energy system. The companies are investing billions toward a carbon-neutral future that will rely increasingly upon solar energy generation and other renewable resources.

A DTE Energy solar panel array in Ann Arbor.

The campaign will highlight the companies' voluntary community solar projects. Those stand in contrast to non-regulated and out-of-state energy projects that the utilities say risk increasing energy costs.

"What DTE and Consumers are able to do that really no one else can is look across the entire territory and make sure the costs are equitable and that the energy delivery system is just across everyone," Sarah Nielsen, Consumers Energy's executive director of demand-side management, said during a virtual news conference.

"The challenge when you have developers come in is they are only looking at one little piece of that grid and making it work for those particular customers who are oftentimes able to afford those solar benefits, but those benefits and costs are not equally distributed across the grid."

State-regulated DTE and Consumers Energy, meanwhile, are working with communities and other stakeholders to install their own renewable projects that can benefit all of their electric customers who pay an additional subscription fee.

DTE has the MIGreenPower program for Southeast Michigan residents. The cost varies depending on market conditions, but on average from wind power, the cost is around 2 cents per kilowatt-hour and 3 cents per kilowatt-hour from half solar and half wind. The average Michigan household uses 676 kilowatt-hours per month, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

"MIGreenPower provides customers with an easy, flexible and affordable renewable energy option without the concerns of variable contracts and other predatory contracts common with out-of-state, private developers," said Knox Cameron, DTE's manager of renewable energy sales.

There are 41,000 residents enrolled with 500 added on average weekly. There are more than 400 small business and 34 larger commercial customers, including Ford Motor Co., General Motors Co., the state of Michigan and the University of Michigan, also participating.

The subscriptions will allow DTE to add several solar projects over the next three years, Cameron said. The most recently announced addition is a 20-megawatt facility on property owned by the city of Ann Arbor in conjunction with Pittsfield Township that is expected to open in 2023.

Ann Arbor, however, is considering its own sustainable energy utility to supplement DTE's service. A meeting for public discussion on a feasibility study is scheduled for Thursday.

Consumers Energy’s Solar Gardens program has two locations on Michigan's west side and a partnership with the city of Cadillac. The Jackson-based utility has built 4.5 megawatts of solar energy out of the 10 that the Michigan Public Service Commission has approved.

There are 900 signed up for the subscription-based service. The monthly cost is $9 per block, which is ½ kilowatt-hour of solar-generated electricity, but depending on market prices and how much solar was generated that month, Consumers adds a credit to customers' bills for solar. The end result averages an additional $4.40 per month, Nielsen said.

"Our Solar Gardens program allows customers to promote a cleaner energy landscape without the upfront costs and long-term maintenance of owning your own solar panels," she said. "We go use those subscriptions to go build solar faster than we would've done in our normal plan and generate that solar energy."

She added the company supports union jobs going to local residents at its solar facilities.

The energy providers emphasized inclusivity in these projects. The Michigan Public Service Commission has approved two pilots for DTE focused on low-income and underserved area. It allows DTE to accept donations from companies and individuals that can pay for subscriptions for low-income households and reduce their monthly bills by $25 to $30 on average.

The second pilot works with third parties that partially will fund solar projects with DTE in Detroit, Highland Park and River Rouge.

"With solar, DTE traditionally focuses on building universal-scale sized projects that provide clean energy to our customers at the lowest possible cost," Cameron said. "However, we also recognize the need to increase the access to clean energy for low-income communities."

Similarly, Consumers Energy's Sunrise initiative works with nonprofits and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to be sponsor subscribers to fund Solar Gardens subscriptions for low-income individuals.

Earlier this year, Consumers Energy said it plans to add 8,000 megawatt-hours of solar energy by 2040. It is a part of its pending proposal subject to approval of the Michigan Public Service Commission that would include more than $1 billion in investments and end its use of coal by 2025. Michigan's largest utility, it is seeking to become carbon neutral by 2040.

DTE operates 50 wind and solar farms in Michigan, which it says generate enough energy to power nearly 700,000 homes. By 2025, it expects it will double its investment of $2.8 billion into renewables and will generate enough renewable energy to power roughly 1.3 million homes — about 15% of its energy mix. The company is on pace to triple renewable capacity over the next 10 years, said Brian Calka, DTE's director of renewable energy solutions. The Detroit-based utility is seeking to go carbon neutral by 2050.

DTE Energy electric customers can sign up for MIGreenPower at https://newlook.dteenergy.com/wps/wcm/connect/dte-web/quicklinks/migreenpower. Consumers Energy electric customers can get more information at https://www.consumersenergy.com/residential/renewable-energy.

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble