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Posted on Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 5:58 a.m.

Bringing 'community solar' to Ann Arbor: Effort to create pilot program underway

By Ryan J. Stanton

About a year and a half ago, Nate Ayers and some of his neighbors in Ann Arbor's Lower Burns Park neighborhood began thinking seriously about solar energy.

They discussed ways to collaborate on a group installation project, pooling their resources and buying as many solar panels as possible for as cheaply as possible.


Solar panels are seen on the rooftop of Arbor Brewing Co. in downtown Ann Arbor. Under a proposed "community solar" concept, members of the community could participate in buying shares in other solar projects like this.

photos courtesy of AABOR

Because of the dense tree cover in their neighborhood, they realized their own homes weren't ideal locations, so they began looking around.

What about a larger installation somewhere outside of the neighborhood where they'd each buy into the project — similar to a co-op model — and each receive credits for the energy produced by the system? In theory, they'd recoup their investment over a period of several years, while at the same time helping reduce the community's carbon footprint.

"As citizens, we want to help the city achieve its renewable energy goals," Ayers said. "This is a community that's pretty passionate about sustainability and ecological awareness, so it's definitely a combination of both ecological and economic benefits."

Ayers, a professional permaculture designer, said about 20 of his neighbors are now on board with the idea. He's thinking maybe a nearby business on South Industrial Highway with a nice south-facing roof will work, but they're still trying to pin down a location.

The Ann Arbor City Council gave the group's idea a boost this week, passing a resolution encouraging the development of a pilot "community solar" project.

City officials said a number of neighborhood and church groups have contacted the city about implementing a community solar project in Ann Arbor.

Community solar is an emerging practice allowing a group of people or businesses to purchase shares in a renewable energy system not located at the site of their electric meter, explained Nate Geisler, the city's energy programs associate.

The participants receive a share of the value of the energy produced from the offsite system as if it were located at their home or business, Geisler said.

He pointed out the Cherryland Electric Cooperative in Traverse City has launched the first large-scale example of community solar in Michigan and has seen fast growth in resident participation in the short time the program has been available.

It's estimated that 70 percent of Ann Arbor citizens do not have the ability to invest in efficient or practical solar energy because of site issues — they're either in the shade, don't have the right roof orientation for solar exposure, or they don't own their property.

The high cost of installing a complete solar energy system also is a barrier for many people who alternately could afford to invest in a partial system or several solar collectors.

And sometimes people simply don't feel comfortable purchasing or maintaining a solar energy system with technology they know little about.

"Community solar can remove many of these barriers by allowing a group of investors to purchase shares in a group-owned solar energy system, which is constructed, operated, and maintained by a third party," the council's resolution states.

Current electric utility policy in Michigan doesn't allow public utilities like DTE Energy and Consumers Energy to offer community solar programs except as a pilot program when approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission. City officials have set a target date of March 31 for outlining a plan for the MPSC's consideration.

Ann Arbor officials are planning to work with DTE Energy to launch a pilot program that could enable community solar in Ann Arbor.

The City Council also went on record Tuesday night encouraging the Michigan Legislature to pass enabling legislation for community solar similar to a bill passed in Minnesota in May, mandating public electric utilities to submit a plan to allow separately metered accounts to be credited for investment in community solar projects.

Ann Arbor, which is designed a "Solar America City" by the U.S. Department of Energy, has adopted a Climate Action Plan and developed a Solar Plan that both advocate maximizing the installation and use of solar photovoltaic systems.

Geisler said the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association is underway with a statewide grant exploring feasibility and constraints facing community solar, and a pilot program in Ann Arbor could help inform and be informed by that effort.

"However, none of their funding would go toward an Ann Arbor pilot, it would just help to identify barriers and opportunities in our area and provide possible directions for a pilot," he said.

Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for Reach him at or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's email newsletters.



Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:40 p.m.

We should also be building passive solar as much as possible. It's just crazy that we have not. For decades you couldn't find anyone to build such a house. It's changed now. I've been in such places in winter and they work quite well, even in Michigan. If we had been doing this since the 1970's we'd have that much cleaner air by now. They were not much more expensive and certainly the pay-back time of any additional cost was pretty short.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:37 p.m.

Greg and DJ Earl To your point, solar energy, like most new technology, will take time to mature. In its infancy, cost will always be an issue. However, it takes people like the ones mentioned in this article, who are optimistic enough to buy into it, to support the technology's growth. I have no doubt that once the solar technology matures, people like you will jump on the bandwagon and take advantage. It's always much easier to be pessimistic and complain, rather than being optimistic and contribute.

DJ Earl

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:45 p.m.

What part of "knock yourselves out" did you not understand? That statement expresses encouragement. And my statement, "Just keep your hands out of my pockets" matches with your comment about people buying into it and supporting it. I think private/personal investment in this is great. I use a small solar charger myself, for a mobile electronic device. Calm down.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:35 p.m.

The first adopters of any technology are going to pay a pretty penny. I bought a CF bulb when they cost $35. Now they are $1 on sale. I'm still glad I bought them then, gradually replacing nearly all my bulbs and my electric bill came down quite a bit. I suspect they paid for themselves.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 3:59 p.m.

I am glad they did not decide to cut down the trees in Burns Park to facilitate the solar installation.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:31 p.m.

Of course, trees make a huge difference in the summer in keeping things cool. My place, surrounded by trees is much cooler than the neighbors very similar house with none. So cutting them down would be very short-sighted. Plus many other advantages of trees.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 3:11 p.m.

Magpie - you stated that what you were told was that " It was only $400. to "buy"a panel and they projected about a 4 year (?) payback period if you used it year round." Don't be too surprised if the reality does not meet the expectations. Solar rarely has met the blown up proprogada spouted at the start. Tech is coming, but it is not really cost effective currently. Spend your own money as you wish, just don't insist on spending tax dollars till they get it cost effective.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 3:03 p.m.

I'm in! Keep me posted. What a great idea. I belong to Cherryland Electric because I have a cottage on Lake Leelanau. But since I only use the cottage in summer, I didn't buy a share in their Solar project. It was only $400. to "buy"a panel and they projected about a 4 year (?) payback period if you used it year round. I think the first project shares sold out quickly.

DJ Earl

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 2:58 p.m.

"It's estimated that 70 percent of Ann Arbor citizens do not have the ability to invest in efficient or practical solar energy because of site issues." And money. Most people know money is not well-spent on this technology. But for those can afford to dabble with it, knock yourselves out. Just keep your hands out of my pockets.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 6:22 p.m.

Funny how you say keep out of your pockets, when NOBODY has mentioned anything from YOUR pocket. DTE and Consumers Power CERTAINLY take money from peoples pockets every month and have a MONOPOLY on the delivery of their "service". If I do not like what they charge, I can not go shop around for a new delivery system. I am told pay it, or it will be shut off. Funny ow nobody has a problem with taxpayers funding nuclear power and oil and coal, but something that ANY person can get for free (solar and wind) and it is a freak out about taking their money. The ONLY reason solar is not more adopted is because if the entire city became solar, there is no way for DTE to monetize it


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 2:27 p.m.

Here is what is happening in another community.....

Dog Guy

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:43 p.m.

I do not have the ability to invest in efficient or practical solar energy because of site issues — I live in Michigan.

DJ Earl

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 3:25 p.m.

Very good!


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:04 p.m.

"The high cost of installing a complete solar energy system also is a barrier for many people who alternately could afford to invest in a partial system or several solar collectors" This is pretty important. The grid-tie inverter is a big chunk of the cost, and doesn't actually produce any power. The panels themselves are pretty cheap now. Also, you can't install your own system and grid-tie it, so you have to pay a bunch for the design and installation. Michigan's solar resource is bad enough that you need a fairly sizable system to break even in a reasonable time with those extra costs thrown in. Contributing a share of the cost of a larger system is a great way to go.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 12:58 p.m.

Can we get the same deal that Arbor Brewing got for their solar array? The DDA ponied up (or is that cronied up?) $20K plus they got a $10K interest-free loan from the city. Anything like that available for mere citizens and taxpayers?


Sun, Sep 8, 2013 : 2:55 a.m.

Was PACE the deal that Arbor Brewing got? I think it is strange that PACE funds and city funds are available for commercial and residential projects, but non-profits did not qualify for this assistance.

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:39 p.m.

The city has worked pretty hard to get a PACE program up and running with the hopes of extending it to both commercial and residential property owners. Through the city's PACE program, qualifying property owners will be able to borrow money for energy efficiency projects ranging from $10,000 to $350,000 and then pay back the loans through special assessments added onto their tax bills for up to 10 years.

Dithering Ninny

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 12:54 p.m.

Good thing temperatures have been FALLING for the last 15 years. BTW Did we (Humans) cause the ice age? ...No? Then the earth has been fluctuating between cooling and warming for longer than we have data. Weather people often don't get TOMORROW's forecast right, forgive my skepticism, regarding your 87 YEAR weather forecast.

Dithering Ninny

Wed, Sep 11, 2013 : 4:07 p.m.

@ Charles @ Brad I have a nearly energy neutral home, don't patronize me, my energy usage makes you look like a hypocrite. @ Ryan I agree clean is good, energy independence is good too. Erica seems to imply doom if we don't. "We are going to make the world 4-5 C warmer if we don't". You see Ryan NO ONE asks for sources or questions that assumption. We have to be better skeptical scientists. For example, the UN's IPCC link I have provided predicted temperatures today-23 YEARS later would be in a range of .35-2.25 C degrees higher, with an average increase of .7 C. There were 380 scientists from 63 countries and they were WRONG. As the reality is the temperatures have been level to slightly DECREASING for that period. I am suggesting that a 100 year climate forecast may not be very realistic-there are just too many factors to adequately model. Finally, @ Erica, I just don't agree with your conclusions, especially stated as absolutely as you do. The Earth isn't flat, the Ice-Age (I was taught by scientists as a child was coming) has not, the IPCC 23 years ago was WRONG. Forgive my skepticism regarding your 87 year forecast.

Erica Ackerman

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 6:14 p.m.

Dithering Ninny, you are exactly right that the earth's temperature has been fluctuating between cooling and warming for billions of years. In fact, studying the evidence of those fluctuations is one of the main ways we came to understand how global warming works and at what rate we can expect change to happen now. The global cooling and warming the earth has undergone in the past isn't just some magic thing that happens, it occurs as responses to physical and chemical changes in the environment. For example, certain wobbles in the earth's orbit can cause an increase in how much energy we receive from the sun, which in turn can cause an increase in the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. That increase in carbon dioxide then magnifies the earth's greenhouse effect, heating the planet up, sometimes dramatically. But those effects usually happen over millions of years, giving species time to evolve to deal with the new temperatures. Sometimes the changes have happened more abruptly, and been accompanied by mass extinctions. Unless we make dramatic changes in the amount of carbon dioxide we are emitting, temperatures really will rise precipitously in the near future, threatening our way of life.

Erica Ackerman

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 5:44 p.m.

Charles, I don't think you can post links here, but do a search on "earth observatory nasa decadal temp". The first result is an article from NASA that has reliable data. No serious climate scientist uses only measurements taken in cities. Many brilliant scientists have dedicated their lives to figuring out how to calibrate all the different measurements from around the world, both on land and in the ocean, to get reliable data. If you think that someone could publish a paper in a peer reviewed journal using just urban data, you have been badly misled. Try spending some time at the site Skeptical Science (search on "skeptical science"), which presents a very readable overview of the major questions related to climate change.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 5:40 p.m.

Charles - reputable scientists try to take those factors into account. Look up Richard Muller and the data he re-analyzed.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 4:51 p.m.

Are humans causing global warming? "Very likely," the IPCC said in a February 2007 report. The report, based on the work of some 2,500 scientists in more than 130 countries, concluded that humans have caused all or most of the current planetary warming. Human-caused global warming is often called anthropogenic climate change. D Ninny, sorry, I'll believe the 2500 scientists over your gut feeling. Charles: you will never get a definite answer from looking at the data. Data can show correlation, but not causation. Besides science is not about going around proving things, it's more about showing what's more likely and what's less likely.

Homeland Conspiracy

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:51 p.m.

Thanx Ryan

Ryan J. Stanton

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

Regardless of your opinion on global warming, isn't reducing pollution still a good thing no matter what? I like clean air, and I think a lot of other people do, too.

Charles Curtis

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:35 p.m.

Can anyone posting these data talking points reference an actual study and post the link. Im interested in this subject, the the global warmers only seem to take measurements in cities, and global coolers take measurements from rural areas at higher elevations, both which skew data. Ocean measurements suffer same type of data corruption, measuring near sallow or deep water areas, with more or less currents. I have not seen any neutral study that encompasses all locations over long term.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 1:02 p.m.

You're confusing weather and climate. Turn off the radio.


Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 12:51 p.m.

Sounds reasonable, as long as they are spending their own money and not taxpayers on their grand plan. Solar rarely gives anything close to the output quoted by solar lovers "as possible". Because most solar collectors do not track the sun, nobody is cleaning the cells weekly - they get dirty, efficiency drops and because most of the quotes use numbers for ideal circumstances. Do not believe solar is yet cost effective. Sounds great and make solar lovers feel warm and fuzzy theat they "are doing something", but not really effective with current tech.

Erica Ackerman

Fri, Sep 6, 2013 : 11:28 a.m.

Even a one-degree warming is an immense change in the climate. For the last 12,000 years, since humans began farming, the global average temperature has stayed within a 1-2 degree Celsius range. The last time the Earth was 4 degrees Celsius cooler than now was in the Ice Age. If we do not take action, we are going to make the Earth 4-5 degrees Celsius warmer by the end of this century. That will be a catastrophe.