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. As of early 2021, congress has now extended the 26% federal tax credit through the end of 2022.

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 2021, 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.