DTE Energy Co.’s construction of two new solar arrays in Michigan next year could be delayed until 2023 due to the ongoing dispute between the US and China over human rights violations in China, a DTE executive told Crain’s.
Silicon components used in the production of solar panels sold in the US are produced in the western Xinjiang region of China, where the US State Department is challenging China’s “cruel and inhumane” forced labor practices.
The Biden administration’s crackdown on the mass detention of religious minorities in China has effectively halted the flow of solar panels and other renewable energy components to the US
“We are having trouble getting panels in due to the international disputes between the US and China,” said Trevor Lauer, president and chief operating officer of DTE Electric.
Solar panels are “also entangled in the entire shipping disaster,” Lauer added. “But above all, we have panels that are now sitting outside the country waiting to get in — and we can’t get them into the country.”
Completion of the two arrays — a 120-megawatt solar farm in Washtenaw County and a 200-megawatt solar array in Montcalm County — could be pushed to 2023 as a result of the international trade dispute, Lauer said.
The reliance on China-made solar panels is a potential glitch in DTE Energy’s continued expansion into solar, which the Detroit-based utility is shifting to for future investments as the cost of electric generation from wind turbines has risen.
DTE announced on Tuesday that the production of renewable energy has increased by 40 percent this year compared to 2020.
The 535 megawatt increase came from three new wind farms that came online in the spring and a solar panel that started producing electricity before the end of the year, Lauer said.
In 2022, DTE’s Meridian wind farm, which spans the borders of Saginaw and Midland counties, is expected to come online and generate 225 megawatts from 77 wind turbines.
“After we build the Meridian wind farm, I think we’ll essentially be done building wind in the state of Michigan,” Lauer told Crain’s. “…What we see is that the total cost of solar energy is lower than the total cost of wind.”
However, DTE can increase the electrical generation capacity of existing wind farms by replacing 1.5 megawatt turbines with 3 megawatt turbines. These upgrades are known in the industry as “repowering” wind farms.
But, Lauer warned, cheaper solar generation “will depend on what happens to China to continue flooding the US with solar energy.”
Since the US government intervened in China’s forced labor, the cost of solar panels from China has risen 15 percent, Lauer said.
“So I think it’s a matter of where sun and wind fall apart relative to China’s ability to remain the solar component manufacturer and supplier to the world,” Lauer said. “A lot of that will depend on that.”
DTE’s growth in renewable energy has been fueled by its MiGreenPower program, a voluntary premium electric customer that can pay to get its power from renewable energy sources.
More than 43,000 residential customers and 450 commercial and industrial customers have enrolled in the MiGreenPower program. Corporate customers include all General Motors Co. offices and manufacturing facilities. in DTE’s electrical service area in Southeast Michigan, Lauer said.
A “very large hospital system” is expected to officially join the MiGreenPower program next week, Lauer said.
As the utility is enrolling 500 customers per week in the MiGreenPower program, DTE plans to submit a request for quote for additional solar projects in early 2022.
“We will also look into partnering with third parties, but the need will remain,” Lauer said. “Everything we’ve built we’ve already sold out through MiGreenPower, so we need new assets to support new customers joining the program.”
The Michigan Public Service Commission has approved DTE to add 431 megawatts to the 1.8 million megawatt-hours tied to the clean energy program.
DTE Energy’s plans to build more solar panels come as the company and Jackson-based Consumers Energy Co. are trying to push back legislation in Lansing that would open up the solar power production market to smaller operators looking to build arrays producing less than two megawatts. hours of electricity.
“Size and scale really matter when you start building these things,” Lauer said. “If I can get them to this size of 150 megawatts, I can cut costs significantly compared to building smaller ones.”
Lauer said the “driving force” for residential DTE customers who sign up for the MiGreenPower program is that they can buy to harness energy from the sun without the DIY investment.
“You don’t have to make holes in your roof, you don’t have to sign a 20-year contract connecting your house to something,” Lauer said.