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Michigan alternative electrical generation – Henry Ford is not a good analogy

5 Oct 2015

utility workA recent op ed in Crains Detroit Business argued that legislation pending in Lansing regarding Michigan’s electrical system is wrongheaded. The authors focus on the proposed elimination of the renewable portfolio standard (RPS requiring 10% of Michigan’s electricity be generated by renewables by this year) by the legislation and argue that the legislation will cost Michigan energy jobs. They argue that  Henry Ford wouldn’t have built his automobiles here if there wasn’t a legislative infrastructure to support buyers of his cars.  I think I agree with the authors that we should retain the RPS, but their argument doesn’t persuade me. I believe that the future will include a greater mix of sources of electricity. It will not be simply large power coal-fired plants owned by large utilities providing us electricity.

However, without any historical discussion, they suggest that Henry Ford located his operations in Michigan because somehow the regulatory climate supported buyers of his cars, because in their words Lansing didn’t “kowtow” to the horse and buggy industry and paved streets and put up traffic lights. That’s simply not true.  Detroit’s mayor Hazen Pingree began a push to pave streets in the 1890’s and Ford didn’t begin production of his Model T until 1908 (making over 10,000 of them in 1909).  The traffic light wasn’t patented until 1918 and reportedly the first one was installed in Detroit in 1920 – again, well after Mr. Ford had begun his operations (in 1920, Ford reportedly manufactured 1 Million cars worldwide).

As most students of Detroit history know, the automobile industry focused on Detroit because Henry Ford was from here, there was a history of manufacturing, and there was easy access to raw materials. There was no amazing roadway system which led Ford to conclude “this is the place to build the automobile.”  In short, it was an accident of luck, history, geography and economics. I think a better analogy is the railroads, which required a dedicated infrastructure as Congress wanted to open the western United States to commerce and did so by granting rights, privileges and land so that the railroads could establish their “grid” at a lower cost.

The authors of the op ed pay short shrift to the discussion of the legislation’s other major change – elimination of net metering, but it appears that they view this as problematic also. Net metering is the current system whereby individuals and small businesses that generate their own electricity can sell it back to the grid.  The net metering issue is not over whether individual electricity generators can or should sell power back to the grid – rather, it’s what should be the price of that sale. Currently, individual generators can sell power back to the grid at the retail price of electricity charged by the utilities. This has been a boon for encouraging individuals and others to put up wind turbines and solar cells. The ability to sell excess electricity at the same price that the utility charges certainly means a faster payback which means more people will invest in it.

Utilities argue that this is a subsidy and they’re right.  Individual generators do not have to meet regulatory requirements relating to the power that they generate, nor do they have the costs of ensuring long-term reliability or the overhead costs of delivering power to consumers.  If you took your home-grown tomatoes to Kroger or Meijer, would you expect the law to require the store to buy them from you and at the same price the store sells tomatoes? Of course not.  In my view, the question is not whether there should be an incentive for individuals to create distributed power but, rather, how much of an incentive is fair to incentivize distributed power generation and fair to those who will continue to depend on the existing grid that will need upkeep.

We have an infrastructure in place that requires maintenance and upgrading for the 21st-century.  This is not a problem with a simple one-size-fits all-solution. The Legislature needs a more nuanced approach than simply blowing up the current system, but let’s get the arguments right.