Monday, November 16, 2020

A Trip through Ann Arbor's Solarize Program

a photo of many solar panels on a roof

As a distraction from the hours spent stressing over the 2020 election, my family has been exploring the idea of generating our own power with rooftop solar panels. After attending a Solarize session recently, I chatted with Julie Roth, who works as the Program Lead in the city's Office of Sustainability and Innovation. This innovative program grew organically out of her own experience in 2019, when she led a group discussion about Solar in her own home. 

Roth says she was quite surprised by the program's success - at the pilot first event, she "expected a few people sitting around awkwardly trying not to make eye contact with the installer." Instead, 40 people showed up in her living room, and 11 of them signed up for a new solar install.

This year, the city decided to see if this grassroots pilot program could scale up. It exceeded all expectations. Despite the pandemic, there have been 8 Solarize meetings this year, with nearly 100 new installs through the program.  Now on almost a monthly basis, neighbors come together to spread the word about the benefits of solar power, and get a hefty discount in the process.

The program works like this: First, a homeowner gets quotes with select installers locally who have been vetted through the Michigan Saves green bank, and the city acts as a facilitator for the group buy process. Second, neighborhood yard signs, posts on social media, and emails go out to residents who express an interest in solar. Next, the lead homeowner, installer, and Roth facilitate a group information session via Zoom, covering the economics and process of putting up solar panels. Finally, after this informal low-pressure meeting, anyone interested can set up a free quote with the chosen installer. If others move forward with the installation process, the group can get up to a 15% discount.

The Changing Economics of Solar 

Big changes are coming for Solar incentives in the US, including sunsetting federal tax credits. For 2020, all installations are eligible for a 26% federal income tax credit, but most installers are booked for the rest of the year at this point. For 2021, that tax credit decreases to 22% - still thousands of dollars on a typical install. In 2022, the tax credit disappears entirely. 

In 2019, DTE successfully lobbied to change the rate it pays for any excess generation that it purchases from its customers who generate electricity from rooftop solar. Previously under net metering rules, DTE paid full price for any excess energy a customer generated. DTE argued this arrangement is unfair, and now essentially pays households half the amount it previously paid. It is still is cost-effective to have a solar installation, but now it takes an average of 13 years for a solar array to pay for itself, rather than 8 previously under net metering. Solar panels usually have expected lifespans of 25 to 40 years, so even with DTE's less generous reimbursements, Solar remains a bit of a no-brainer.

It can sometimes make more fiscal sense now to build a solar grid which provides the amount of energy you use during daylight hours, rather than a system which covers 100% of your use. Any energy you generate that goes back into the grid is essentially worth half as much as the energy your house consumes. 

An screenshot from DTE Insight App.
Notice the extra draw starting at 5pm when our EV is being charged on 110V power.

If you’re curious about your own power use, DTE has a helpful smartphone app called “DTE Insight” which can show you how much power you are using during the day. For our household, much of our energy consumption comes in the evening when a solar panel is generating little to no electricity. Some of this could perhaps be offset by behavior change- for example we could purchase an electric dryer that has a delay start feature, and set it to run while we are at work. Unfortunately, our plug-in hybrid will likely always draw most of its power from the grid. When my wife gets home from work and plugs it in to charge, the sun has already set. 

As an aside, the 30% federal income tax credit on electric vehicle charge stations expires on December 31st this year, so get it done now if you're thinking about purchasing one. 


Setting aside pure economics, one of the big reasons to use solar panel is to offset your own fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Even though DTE no longer pays the full rate for the excess electricity you produce, that electricity does go back into the grid, powering neighborhood homes in a much cleaner fashion than the current DTE mix - which is mostly coal-generated and only 8.67% renewable.

text image: Even a small 3.6 kW solar array in Ann Arbor will replace more than 8,800 lbs of CO2 emissions every year. That’s like taking a full-sized truck off the streets.

If your primary goal is to offset your own carbon footprint, then the best choice is to build the largest system you can afford, and that you are allowed to - you cannot build a system that covers more than 100% of your average use over the past year. This also means that to a certain extent, it makes more sense to build rooftop solar prior to reducing energy use through insulation and purchasing energy star appliances. With a larger array, if you end up adding electric appliances or an EV down the road, you have some excess power to cover it. 

Changes on the Horizon

Could President-elect Joe Biden and a Democratic majority in the Senate change the economics of Solar in the future? Certainly, but even if the Democrats control congress, it's unlikely the value equation will improve substantially - the tax credits could still disappear, as some argue these credits were meant to make Solar installs cost-effective, and they have succeeded

The 2020 election has proven that the future is uncertain, and perhaps it's best not to try predicting things like the existence of federal tax credits. 

There is also a little-known rule in Michigan limiting how much peak power can come from rooftop solar. Currently DTE and Consumers Energy allow just 1% of their peak power from rooftop solar grids. Consumers Energy is reaching that limit quickly, with DTE not far behind. There is a bill to change this rule, but it’s currently stuck in committee.  Utilities can also voluntarily extend this limit, but as of now there are no indications they would do so. 

 What About Batteries? 

If much of our use is at night, and the excess energy produced is sold to DTE at half of retail rates, then what about a battery? With a battery like Tesla’s Powerwall, a family can store excess energy for use after the sun sets. A battery can also act like a generator in a power outage - without one, a solar array will not provide your home with power when the grid is down. 

photo of Tesla Powerwall Battery

We’re not considering a battery at this time, mostly due to cost, degradation, and environmental concerns. One Tesla Powerwall unit costs about $11,500 installed - which is about the same price as a midsized solar installation. At that price they essentially never pay for themselves. The batteries are only guaranteed to last 10 years at 70% of their original capacity, which is much shorter than the 25-40 years expected out of a roof installation. Ecologically, it makes more sense to use the power generated than to store it, considering the heavy metal mining required to make modern batteries.


If you're interested in learning more about generating clean energy for your home, contact Julie Roth at the Ann Arbor Office of Sustainability and Innovation, and her team will fill you in on the details. She's fantastic to work with, knows her stuff, and her enthusiasm for making A2Zero a reality is quite infectious. 

photo of Julie Roth and her girls
Julie Roth (far right) and her girls

You can also put your address into the SunNumber website to find out if your roof is reasonably well-suited to get sunlight. Keep in mind that unshaded south-facing roofs are ideal, but accommodations for others can still be made, and ground-mounted solar installations are also possible. 

For my family, we've decided to move forward with a system that will generate about half of our electricity, as it's the size that makes sense for us at this time. We're looking forward to sunnier days in 2021, in many ways. 

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: November 16, 2020

Gentle readers, tonight is the first session off the new council. So exciting. Here's the agenda

The evening kicks off with a light, 11 item, consent agenda. CA-1 is a resolution to remove parking on the north side of Scio Church Road between South Maple Road and Greenview Drive. CA-3 through CA-5 are accepting grants for drug, veterans, and mental health courts. CA-6 is purchasing of new patrol vehicles for AAPD. 

There are no public hearings on the docket this evening. C-1 is the first reading of an ordinance that would make it so solar panels don't count towards maximum building height when you have a flat roof. DC-1 is council committee appointments. 

DC-2 is very exciting. It's a resolution directing planning commission to create rules for a transit supported development district. This would allow for greater density, remove parking minimums, and maybe permit more uses along corridors that are well served by AAATA. This is a great way to make our city more climate friendly and more walkable. 

I don't entirely understand DC-4, a resolution directing Planning Commision to update the State Street Corridor Plan and examine the feasibility of a Transit Supportive Development Zoning District. It looks like a much, much weaker version of DC-2. 

As always, gentle reader, I am probably forgetting some very important items here. What agenda items are you most looking forward to seeing. I am guessing that tonight will be another late night around the virtual council table. Hopefully we will see you there. The CTN stream starts at 7 pm. Make sure you follow the action on the #a2council hashtag.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Ypsi District Library: Curated Book Hauls

One of the small sadnesses of the pandemic is that Ypsilanti District Libraries are closed to browsing (though you can still order books online and pick up through Curbside Service). As a result we haven't been able to take Baby Damn Arbor to enjoy all the infant and toddler programming that the library usually has to offer, including the expansive collection of board books to venture outside our home collection. 

Fortunately, the library has started a Hand-Picked for You program, where library cardholders can still avail themselves of the librarians' expertise. We filled out a form of the type and number of books we wanted, plus some additional information about Baby Damn Arbor's book preferences. And ta da: a personalized package of books, including some recently published, ready for pickup within two days. "The Babies and Doggies Book" and "Peek-a-Who?" have even cracked into Baby Damn Arbor's cycle of favorites. Very grateful to be able to enjoy some portion of the library during this pandemic and looking forward to what the librarians will find for our second haul when we take all these back in a few weeks!

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: November 5, 2020

Tonight, gentle reader, is the final #a2council meeting of the current council. The end of an era and the final meeting with CMs Bannister, Lumm, Ackerman, Eaton, and Smith. Here's the agenda

The meeting kicks off with a tiny, 4 item consent agenda. There are also no public hearings. Will it be a quick meeting? Who knows? 

C-1 is the first reading of an ordinance to convert 1043 North Main from Agricultural to R1D. DC-1 is resolution to appoint two members to the Council of the Commons. As of writing, they are yet unnamed.

DC-2 is a resolution modifying the rules around traffic calming projects sponsored by CM Lumm. Currently residences that are within 100 ft of a potential traffic calming project get to weigh in on thee project. DC-2 would up that distance 1000 ft, potentially giving more people a chance to weigh in. I'm a little skeptical of this as it seems like a way to make it so more people have chances to block traffic calming projects. 

DC-4 is a motion to reconsider getting the EPA involved in the Gelman Site. DC-5 is a resolution to waive attorney client privilege regarding a bunch of legal memos ranging from 2008 to 2019. Not really sure what this is about. Finally DC-6 is a resolution to waive late fees for winter taxes. 

And there you have it folks, a pretty short meeting agenda. Will the meeting actually be short thought? Who knows. The last meeting went super late because there was a last minute addition to the agenda and things got pretty acrimonious. I imagine some of those hurt feelings may rear their heads at this meeting. 

As always, gentle reader, I am probably forgetting some very important items here. What agenda items are you most looking forward to seeing. I am guessing that tonight will be another late night around the virtual council table. Hopefully we will see you there. The CTN stream starts at 7 pm. Make sure you follow the action on the #a2council hashtag.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: October 19, 2020

Gentle readers, tonight is the final spooktacular #a2council meeting of October. Here's the agenda.  

The evening kicks off with with a modest 11 item consent agenda. Of note, CA-3, a resolution to accept a $300,000 Natural Resources Trust Grant to improve access at the Argo Canoe Livery. 

There are three public hearings on the docket this evening all of which deal with the Veridian at County Farm Park. This is a sustainable subsidized and market rate housing project going in where the old Juvenile Detention Facility was. PH-1/B-1 is on the PUD for the site. PH-2/DB-1 is on the development agreement. PH-3/DB-2 is on the site plan. 

DC-1 is a resolution to rename Rose White Park in honor of the late Ward 4 Councilmember, Graydon Krapohl. 

DC-3 is probably the spiciest chili of the night. Sponsored by lame duck CMs Eaton and Lumm, this is a resolution to return residential water rates from a four-tier structure to a three-tier structure. For a deep dive into this, check out this great article by Erich Z. The tl:dr here is that switching back to a three-tier structure would benefit households that use a lot of water, e.g. people with pools and with lawn irrigation. This would come at the expense of moderate water users. This has been something that Lumm has been really passionate about. In my opinion, regardless of weather you agree with this resolution or not, changing something so substantial when half of the council will be leaving next month. 

As always, gentle reader, I am probably forgetting some very important items here. What agenda items are you most looking forward to seeing. I am guessing that tonight will be another late night around the virtual council table. Hopefully we will see you there. The CTN stream starts at 7 pm. Make sure you follow the action on the #a2council hashtag.

Monday, October 5, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: October 5, 2020



Gentle readers tonight is a spooktacular lame duck edition of a2#council. Read the agenda, if you dare.   

The evening kicks off with a brief 9-item consent agenda. Of note, CA-9, the citizen budget priority survey that CM Lumm promised at the last meeting. 

There are two public hearings tonight. PH-1 is a routine township island rezoning. PH-2/B-2 is the second reading of the updated sign ordinance. I don't know a ton about what this changes, but it has been three years in the making. 

Elsewhere on the agenda, DC-1 is an amendment to the recycling plant tours agreement with the Ecology Center. They do tours of the MRF for AAPS students. There was some disagreement about this last time it came forward. 

The real spicy chilis tonight are DC-3 and DC-4. The former directs the city attorney to "File a Written Public Opinion on Dissolution of the DDA." While the latter is a resolution to "Direct the City Administrator and City Attorney to Conduct Due Diligence and Prepare an Ordinance for Dissolution of the DDA." Both of these are sponsored by CMs Bannister and Griswold and were added to the agenda on Friday. In comments to the media CM Griswold said she just wants to start a conversation about this. Seems like a heck of a way to do that. Regardless of what you think of the DDA, the idea of dissolving it during the lame duck session of council, when half of the members will be replaced in November, does not seem like good governance. 

Finally we arrive at DC-5, a resolution "Accelerating Development of the Center of the City Community Commons and Recognizing the Self-Organized Open “Community Commons Initiating Committee” as a Community Partner in the Process." I expect that council will get to this late at night and tempers will be high and that council will re-hash a lot of the debate about the Library Lot. 

As always, gentle reader, I am probably forgetting some very important items here. What agenda items are you most looking forward to seeing. I am guessing that tonight will be another late night around the virtual council table. Hopefully we will see you there. The CTN stream starts at 7 pm. Make sure you follow the action on the #a2council hashtag.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Agenda: September 21, 2020


Gentle readers, it's #a2council night in Ann Arbor. Here's the agenda

The evening kicks off with a 22 item consent agenda. Of note, CA-16, traffic calming on fernwood. Also, CA-19, a street resurfacing project. Finally there is CA-22, a resolution to approve the police contract. 

There are two public hearings on the docket tonight. PH-1 is a routine township island annexation. PH-2 is on 841 Broadway PUD. This is a development at the old DTE Gasworks along the river. I think this is a good project. 

Elsewhere on the agenda we've got C-1, the first reading off an ordinance to modify the Veridian at County Farm PUD. DC-2 is a resolution to decriminalize entheogenic plants. e.g. Psilocybin mushrooms and Peyote, maybe ayahuasca. My biggest issue with this is that Psilocybin mushrooms are emphatically not plants. DC-5 is a resolution to Conduct a 2020 Budget Priorities Citizen Survey to Inform Development of the City's FY22 Budget and FY23 Financial Plan. This is sponsored by CM Lumm and is one of her perennial interests. I think there is probably a good essay to write out there about the dangers off government by surveymonkey. Also, it's worth noting that Lumm has ignored the results of citizen surveys when she disagrees with them. Specifically she has voted against road diets, when surveys show the majority of residents would support minor delays in driving time to improve pedestrian and driver safety. 

Finally we have DC-7 a resolution to end the Healthy Streets Program outside of Downtown. CM Ramlawi is sponsoring this. I think it's a bad idea. This program is designed to give pedestrians and cyclists safe space to travel while maintaining social distance. If it weren't for this program how would you safely cross the Broadway Bridge as a pedestrian or cyclist if there is someone coming from the opposite direction?

As always, gentle reader, I am probably forgetting some very important items here. What agenda items are you most looking forward to seeing. I am guessing that tonight will be another late night around the virtual council table. Hopefully we will see you there. The CTN stream starts at 7 pm. Make sure you follow the action on the #a2council hashtag.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Childcare in the time of COVID: how U of M is failing its students and employees

Princess Carolyn attempts to maintain a healthy work/life balance

To be a new parent is to endlessly multitask. There’s an episode of Bojack Horseman that focuses on Princess Carolyn, a character who has just adopted a baby. After her nanny quits, Princess Carolyn becomes emotionally (and visually), legion: there’s a central, exhausted Princess Carolyn, doing career/plot things, but in the background you see many versions of Princess Carolyn moving from baby-care task to baby-care task. Some tasks endlessly repeat, and each action leaves a blurry after-image. It’s an artful representation of an unavoidable truth: if you have a kid in the current social and political milieu, you can’t have a career without child care.

Having an 11-month-old during a pandemic makes me luckier than some. My kid can’t talk or walk. He can be entertained with a jar lid. I don’t have to have a second career (novice grade school teacher) on top of my first on top of housework on top of regular child care. I’m also affluent enough to have savings, housing, and plenty to eat. That said, I did not see the pandemic coming when I decided to get a Master’s degree at the University of Michigan.

They gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse: free tuition if I attended as a fulltime student. My spouse and I decided, pre-pandemic, that I should quit my job and have our family live on one salary despite the enormous cost of child care. We discovered I’d qualify for a U of M child care subsidy that would greatly ease the financial burden. The subsidy was the difference between scraping by and living comfortably.

Three months before I received the subsidy, COVID hit. For two months we paid full price at a childcare center closed for everyone but children of first responders. It was also a very large child center (more than 40 children). As a member of a high-risk group, my family and I decided to join a nanny share. By engaging a nanny for three days a week with another family we limit our exposure substantially.

Unfortunately, in Michigan, the subsidy does not apply in practice to nannies or in-home care. Despite its assurances that it cares about the health and well-being of its students, the U of M childcare subsidy is applicable only to licensed child care. This sounds fine on paper, but if you’re in the state of Michigan, a childcare license is only required for “Family and Group Childcare Homes” (where the childcare provider cares for one to twelve unrelated children in their own home) and “Child Care Centers” (where the childcare provider cares for one or more unrelated children in a facility other than a private residence). For a nanny providing care in the child’s home, no license is required.

As a result, the U of M subsidy only applies when you send your child to a place outside the home, where they will have contact with children and childcare workers from different households. If you wish to limit your exposure by engaging in-home care from a single nanny, the subsidy is unavailable.  I was told that licensed in-home care could be covered by the subsidy, but, after conducting some research, I was unable to find any agencies providing licensed in-home care. It’s unclear whether a license is available for an in-home childcare worker.

From a public health perspective, U of M’s position is untenable. From a personal perspective, if the choice is to send our kid to a center, where he is much more likely to contract and spread COVID, or keep him home, we'll eat the cost of a nanny share. My family and I are fortunate to have savings (though they won’t last forever), but I know other families in similar situations are struggling. This gap in the childcare subsidy disproportionately affects women, who are more likely to shoulder the bulk of child care in the home, and low-income students, who are more likely to feel the impact of unsubsidized childcare costs. I know of at least two women who’ve been forced to either leave their programs or take a leave of absence. When you’re making nothing (or the modest salary of a PhD) and working full time, what are your options? Either you pay someone a full mortgage a month for in-home care or take the University’s subsidy and risk your health, the health of your child, and the health of other people. These are nonsense terms.

The GEO (Graduate Employees Organization) has recently pressured the University to reconsider its stance on this policy, and several other issues, by striking. The University has countered with talk of the emergency funds available to students. Were I to get the maximum amount of funds from each source available (CARES and the Rackham graduate school) it would not amount to my original subsidy award. It is also uncertain whether I will be awarded any funds, as the applications are rolling. If the University is serious about diversity, inclusion, and slowing the spread of COVID, it should allow and encourage its families to choose in-home childcare. It should dig into its $12 billion endowment and help those disproportionately bearing the economic brunt of the COVID pandemic.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Ann Arbor City Council Preview: 8 September 2020


Happy September gentle reader. Did tonight's #a2council meeting sneak up on you? It snuck up on me. Here's the agenda

The evening kicks off with a 12 item consent agenda. Though it looks like CA-12, "Resolution to Approve Increasing the Purchase Order with Washtenaw County for SWAT Supplies ($26,469.09)" has been pulled. CA-11 looks interesting, it's a resolution to create a temporary childcare fund for city employees. This seems like a good thing to do. 

There are three public hearings on the docket tonight. PH-1 is the second reading of the short term rental ordinance. My guess is that a lot of folks who own Air B&B's will be speaking at this. PH-2 is on a resolution to approve the site plan for a hotel going in at 361 West Eisenhower Parkway. PH-3 is on the Valhalla Annexations. These are 17 parcels on Valhalla Drive which is just south of the intersection of Scio Church and Main.