By Tony Anderson
For close to a decade now, Michigan utilities have had a state-mandated energy conservation program. It started out as Energy Optimization or EO, and recently the name was changed to Energy Waste Reduction or EWR. This law requires every electric utility in the state to reduce the energy used by its members or customers in the present year by 1 percent of the previous year’s total energy sold.
In the beginning, Cherryland members were charged a $1-per-month line item fee to fund energy-saving measures like rebates, pipe wrap, CFL and LED bulbs, etc. Several years ago, we dropped this separate charge and simply rolled the annual $300,000 in expenses into our energy charge.
In the early years of the EO mandate, utilities quickly learned that low-income homes were a difficult place to make cost-effective, energy-saving gains. Eventually, the Michigan Public Service Commission lessened the low-income requirements, and utilities increasingly focused on the low hanging fruit of commercial and regular residential.
At your cooperative, we put a portion of our EWR funds into local weatherization efforts for low-income homes. We also lobbied state employees and elected officials for better programs to serve the low-income community. While the weatherization efforts were effective, our lobbying efforts over the years never were.
Finally, in the fall of 2017, we were presented with an opportunity by the Michigan Agency for Energy (MAE). They were looking for an electric cooperative to participate in a first-of-its-kind energy efficiency and community solar program targeted at low-income homes.
We matched 50 low-income cooperative homes that had gone through energy-saving upgrades in a Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency program with $80,000 from MAE and $100,000 from Cherryland.
The $180,000 from the state and your cooperative funded nine solar panels per household out of the Wolverine Power Cooperative community solar project near Cadillac, Michigan. Since March 1, 2018, these 50 cooperative members have been receiving a monthly credit for the solar production of their nine assigned panels.
What are the goals of this pilot project? There are a few. First, we will track energy use to see if it remains stable, declines or increases. Are the participants really trying to watch their energy use? Second, we will track the use of energy assistance in these homes. Are they becoming more self-sufficient which makes more assistance dollars available for others? Third, we will follow their disconnect history. Are they less costly to serve on a monthly basis?
Through clearly and easily measured metrics over a period of months and years, we will be able to determine whether or not the pilot accomplished its main goal of energy independence for low-income users of electricity.
I am excited about this program and proud of the Cherryland employees who are making it happen. We have always strived to be an energy leader locally, regionally and on a statewide level. Filling an unmet need for a segment of our membership that deserves the same treatment as any other member is one more step towards walking our leadership talk.
It certainly took longer than I had hoped. In the end, I believe this program will prove that if one doesn’t give up hope and keeps searching for the right opportunity, it will eventually present itself. At Cherryland Electric Cooperative, no member is ever forgotten.