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Great Lakes Article:

The blackout is getting Michigan to think green
By Julie Edgar and Hugh McDiarmid Jr.
Detroit Free Press
08/22/03


Last week's power outage had its bright spots.

It inspired a few metro Detroit home owners to wean themselves from an overreliance on electricity, stoked up environmental and conservation forces and kept the phones humming at area companies in the business of setting up clean energy systems.

"This is good for business," said Terence Parker, applications marketing manager at United Solar Ovonic LLC in Auburn Hills. The company also saw a surge in home owner sales before Y2K and after the rolling blackouts in California in 2001.

"It's too early to tell whether we'll see a huge increase in production of solar modules in next few months, but we expect some bump from" the blackout.

Although their message hasn't changed, environmental and conservation groups reiterated their call this week for the development of cleaner technologies and for political policies that would reward the use of renewable energy sources both in the home and in businesses.

The Michigan Environmental Council of Lansing urges relying on smaller power generators to deliver energy over shorter distances, and increasing access to the grid by home owners and businesses that use solar, wind, biomass (the burning of natural materials, like wood or grass, to create energy) and hydrogen fuel cells.

The same message emanated from the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, which has pushed for a more robust energy policy in Michigan that emphasizes conservation and the use of renewable sources of power.

"There are two messages here: You can ease your personal dependency on the power grid, and distributed generation systems ease the burden on the system," said GLREA President John Richter, a Bingham Farms resident.

Distributed generation is a form of decentralization in which buildings and home owners generate their own energy through devices ranging from microturbines to wind turbines. The idea is to ease the load on an aging grid, which, as millions of people saw, is vulnerable.

Michigan, Richter pointed out, also is not part of the majority of states that have net metering, which allows home owners and businesses that use alternative power sources to sell back their surplus energy to utilities at the same price they pay for it. Actually, Michigan has very little in the way of energy policy, said State Rep. Chris Kolb, D-Ann Arbor. Kolb introduced legislation in January that would bring net metering to Michigan. He's optimistic that some form of his proposal, House Bill 4090, will pass, when it gets out of committee.

Kolb has also proposed giving financial incentives to consumers who choose energy-efficient appliances and has begun writing a model energy code for builders who are conservation-minded.

His path is littered with good intentions.

The state has the ninth-highest energy consumption in the country, but it is one of fewer than a dozen states where building codes don't meet the guidelines of the National Energy Policy Act -- a voluntary standard set in 1992 by then-President George Bush.

In fact, Michigan is the only state to roll back efficiency standards for construction of new homes and business, according to the Building Codes Assistance Project, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit group.

"In the early 1990s, Michigan was among the national leaders in energy efficiency," said Martin Kushler, director of utility programs at the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

"But since about 1996, there has essentially been no energy efficiency program."

Donna Napolitano, operations manager at Mechanical Energy Systems in Canton, said it's a matter of the public demanding cleaner ways of producing energy. If only lawmakers would listen, she said.

"If we would just focus some money into alternative energy sources, but renewable energy doesn't make money. Look who's running this country: The oil lobby. How many solar lobbyists are out there?" she said.

Napolitano's company, which she runs with her husband, sells solar systems, among them pool heaters.

A persistent perception among advocates of renewable energy technologies is that public utilities are standing in the way of progress. A DTE Energy official denies it, saying the company is exploring alternative technologies, including distributed generation systems.

But, said Fred Shell, vice president of corporate and government affairs, DTE has an obligation to serve a large industrial state. Alternative power sources at the moment just can't power all of Michigan's needs.

"Everybody wants the system to support new approaches, but we have the responsibility of sustaining the system today. You can't just rush to judgment on a new way of operating the system or new sources of energy," he said.

Still, everybody agrees that even baby steps -- conserving energy by turning down the air conditioner and shutting lights -- could greatly reduce the burden on an overloaded transmission infrastructure.

Some people figured as much in the wake of the blackout.

As of Monday, two days after her power was restored, Connie Slazinski of Canton hadn't yet returned her condo to its normal chilly state, feeling it would be unseemly to crank the air conditioner.

Gary Loeffler of Hazel Park had turned, just like that, into a stricter father to his three children.

"The kids, especially, run the computer and TV all day. A lot of times they leave on the TV when they're not using it. I'm going to stay on them."

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