Solar installers and advocates met across the winter at the Groundwork Center to design community-based campaigns to accelerate rooftop solar installation in northwest Lower Michigan. TCShines and FrankfortShines are scheduled for launch at the end of April. (Photo: Aubrey Ann Parker/Benzie Solar Initiative)
Solar panels are still a rare sight in Michigan, but some folks and organizations in our region are working to change that.
As winter moved in late last year, those folks—local solar contractors and advocates—started meeting with us here at Groundwork to figure out how to pick up the pace of putting panels on homes around Traverse City and Frankfort.
We’re happy to report that we are aiming to launch our new project, Groundwork Shines, on Earth Day. For starters, there will be two campaigns—TCShines and FrankfortShines. They are designed to trigger a good, strong case of “solar contagion” in our neck of the woods.
Don’t worry; solar contagion isn’t dangerous unless you are a fossil fuel company. For everybody else, including our dear Mother Earth and Michiganders looking for good jobs, solar contagion is a great thing: folks with new solar systems proudly chatting with neighbors about why it now makes sense, even in northerly, interminably gray Michigan, to invest in sunshine.
Most Michiganders don’t realize how rapidly solar panel costs are tumbling, how much useable sunshine we actually have, and just how large the stampede to solar is in other parts of the country.
And it really is a stampede. As of last November, according to the Solar Foundation, America’s solar industry employed 208,859 people, a 20 percent increase from November 2014, and is adding new jobs 12 times faster than the economy at large. In many places the cost of a watt of solar power is now about the same as a watt of fossil-fueled power.
Michigan’s solar problem is not a lack of sunshine; it’s a lack of smart solar policies. Utility rebates, state tax credits, renewable standards that include solar “carve outs,” and other state-level policies are making other states with climates like ours (New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Minnesota, to name three) into what we should be: leaders in one of the world’s most important new industries.
With little happening in Lansing to help the situation—other than a few good, bipartisan, pro-solar bills that too many very conservative lawmakers are ignoring—Groundwork and our fellow solar advocates aren’t waiting for the dawn of a new political era. We’re pushing ahead to bring sun power to as many local homes as we can. And we are proud to be backed by so many of the local folks who make their living with solar, as well as by several other local nonprofits, including SEEDS, the Benzie Solar Initiative, and the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, which recently hosted four fine evenings of solar success stories.
The big thing about solar, of course, is cost. Even with the price of silicon, solar cells, panels, and the electronics falling fast, so-called “soft costs” remain stubbornly high. Marketing, design, engineering, regulatory, financing, and labor costs now account for more than half the cost of a solar project, so cutting them is our top challenge.
Meeting with solar installers throughout the winter, mostly over pizza and sandwiches, fellow Groundworker Dan Worth and I learned a lot as they described the business challenges they face every day.
Those challenges include attracting people when many think solar can’t work here; repeatedly visiting potential customers who turn out to be tire-kickers, not buyers; spending lots of time pricing and designing different, customized systems; getting prompt, fairly priced service from building and electrical inspectors; landing loans at workable interest rates; and installing systems more quickly and, therefore, more cheaply.
It’s a daunting list, but by knocking heads with our solar veterans, we’ve come up with some promising solutions. The half-dozen installers we consult with are incredibly generous in sharing their wisdom and experience, and as we’ve worked together, they’ve shifted from mild skepticism about our project to growing enthusiasm for what we’re creating with them.
We’re still drawing up agreements, figuring out processes, shopping for the best deals, talking to local officials, and dreaming up marketing pitches. The only hint we’ll offer at this point is that, if this works, it’s something any group of entrepreneurs could duplicate.
We’ll have much more for you in April—we’ll likely be part of a special event at the State Theatre, and will also make some noise at the NMEAC annual Environmentalist of the Year awards dinner.
Meanwhile, if you want to learn more about Groundwork Shines when it pops, email us at [email protected].
And here’s wishing you many sunny days!
Jim Dulzo is the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities’ senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].