MI Community SolarWKAR

Kevin Lavery – Michigan might not be the first place that comes to mind when you think about clear, sunny skies. Still, our state is fostering a growing solar industry. The new energy reform package signed into law last month by Governor Rick Snyder calls for more aggressive renewable energy production targets, including from solar power.

A public-private partnership in mid-Michigan is trying to capitalize on this trend by building a solar park in East Lansing.

Community solar is hot, and more Americans are warming up to it. The Solar Energy Industries Association reports 25 states have at least one community solar project in operation. A dozen states have passed laws mandating its development.

But what exactly is “community solar?” John Kinch is the CEO of Michigan Energy Options. His agency is joining Lansing, East Lansing and the Lansing Board of Water and Light to deliver solar energy to customers who can’t install their own panels.

“This is kind of a ‘get it and forget it’ solution for people, because we’re locating the site in a place that’s going to have 100 percent of the sun when the sun is shining,” says Kinch.

BWL customers will lease one or more solar panels, each producing up to 300 watts. That energy won’t be sent directly to their homes and businesses. Instead, it will feed the grid. In return, customers will get a credit on their electric bill; about $25 for a single panel in the first year.

Can community solar be cost-effective in Michigan, at our northern latitude? Ask our neighbor two states west. Minnesota is emerging as a national leader in the field.

Jake Wanek is vice-president of subscriber acquisition with Minnesota Community Solar. He says despite fewer hours of sunshine, solar panels are actually more energy efficient in winter…and Wanek says the economic results are tangible.

“I think the one thing that we’ve learned here — and we’re proving it every day — is that this is a financially viable alternate form of energy,” states Wanek. “We have the first five community solar gardens up and running in the state, and the subscribers are seeing the benefits on their monthly bill. They get a bill credit from the utility company, and they end up saving about 10 to 12 percent a year on their electricity.”

Lansing resident Tom Stanton doesn’t need convincing. He’s already signed up to lease a solar panel. His 1893 Victorian home designed by Lansing architect Darius B. Moon is part of a historic district.

Stanton explains that he can’t turn his Moon house into a sun house. So he’s doing the next best thing.

“In theory, you could imagine on this back side of the house that faces south, solar panels or solar shingles could be installed there,” he says. “And (they) could still meet the historic preservation requirements because they would be invisible from the street. But all these trees would have to go. So, this is so shady right now that there’s no opportunity to put solar on our building, and as it happens, it’s much more expensive to put solar on an individual home than it is to build a community array like they’re doing now in East Lansing.”

John Kinch with Michigan Energy Options says the price of solar power components has dropped dramatically in recent years.

Michigan’s new energy law does not mandate community solar projects. But Kinch believes they may help the state reach its new mandate of 15 percent renewables by 2021.

“So it really has everything to do with the climate,” says Kinch. “Not the environmental climate, but the political, cultural and business climate.”

So far, project organizers have leased about 200 panels out of an expected one thousand. They hope to complete the East Lansing Community Park by Earth Day on April 22.

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