MUSKEGON — Building off a successful effort in the Traverse City area to create a community-based solar energy collective, a group in the Muskegon and Grand Haven area wants to bring a similar approach to developing solar energy systems on the lakeshore.
The four-part community solar workshop, co-sponsored by Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) and the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, wrapped up last week in Muskegon.
The goal of the sessions was to create a roadmap for actually implementing a community solar project that meets the needs of communities on the lakeshore, said Arn Boezaart, director of MAREC.
“There’s a growing interest in the development of community solar as an alternative to individual solar and rather than each person putting solar panels on their roof and all that goes with it,” Boezaart said. “We’re poised in this region to seriously explore how we might put some community solar together.”
Boezaart said he and others in the community have started very preliminary discussions with potential partner organizations to facilitate the development of a project with an ambitious goal of getting it started within six months.
“There’s lots of acreage where community solar can be done, but it presents its share of regulations and utility-related issues,” he said. “But we have people signed up to work to make it happen.”
The group is currently working to identify key stakeholders and prime locations in the region where the solar project could be installed.
Community solar projects, also known as solar gardens, have cropped up around the country in recent years, including several in Colorado, where Xcel Energy last year received approval for its Solar*Rewards Community program.
The utility solicited proposals for solar projects involving systems that would produce less than 500 kilowatts and received 39 applications in the first 30 minutes of the application period, according to a report in North American Clean Energy magazine written by Andy Noel, director of utility engineering, procurement and construction contracting at REC Solar.
Noel wrote that the high level of interest signaled that people will react to models “that make solar ownership simple and affordable.”
“Any utility customer — even hi-rise tenants, renters, low-income residents and industrial facilities — can simply and easily buy into a community’s solar garden where available, and enjoy the benefits of predictably priced clean energy,” Noel wrote in the report. “Furthermore, community solar programs turn solar into an asset that can be sold, donated or transferred when a customer moves to a new residence within that utility territory. Thanks to such portability, this form of shared solar eliminates much of the uncertainty involved with investing in a home or a commercial system.”
In Michigan, the Cherryland Electric Cooperative in the Traverse City area helped implement a community solar project known as the Solar Up North (SUN) Alliance Program, which also involved customers of Traverse City Light & Power, as MiBiz reported in April.
Like other solar gardens, the Cherryland project essentially allowed members to buy “shares” on a per-panel basis in a solar array that the co-op owns and maintains.
Each panel or share costs $470, and buyers could defray the cost with a $75-per-panel Energy Optimization rebate. Some co-op members also qualified for another $75 rebate based on their member equity in the organization.
Originally, Cherryland announced a 48-panel offering, but quickly sold shares for 80 panels, which led to plans for two additional 72-panel arrays on the co-op’s property just off U.S. 31 in Grawn, east of Chums Corners.
Members who purchased panels on a 25-year agreement can expect an estimated yearly credit of $25 on their bills, according to the co-op.
“The approach is very innovative because it’s not compromising anyone and they aren’t penalizing anyone,” Allan O’Shea of Contractors Building Supply, the provider of the panels for the project, told MiBiz at the time. “The most important thing is the members who don’t buy in won’t be paying any additional cost, which isn’t always the case with the larger utility projects.”
In Muskegon, Boezaart says he thinks a community solar project in the 300-kilowatt to 500-kilowatt range “would be very doable.”
In addition to the community solar project, MAREC is also involved in a solar array test designed to collect “real-world” data on the solar energy potential in Michigan.
“In the solar world, the available data out there is not from places like Michigan — it’s from Arizona, California and New Mexico,” Boezaart said. “We don’t really have a strong database based on Michigan data.”
With $44,000 in grant funding from the Michigan Energy Office, the center in April installed eight solar arrays with two photovoltaic panels each. The arrays are all set at rooftop angles on ground-mounted systems to the southwest of the MAREC building.
Kim Walton, program director for MAREC, plans to collect data on the panels’ performance for a year. In particular, the study wants to assess how the panels perform in the winter, when half of the panels will be kept cleared and the other half will be left subject to nature.
The study will also collect data from homes in Muskegon and Oceana counties that received renewable energy systems as part of a 2011 U.S. Department of Energy Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers grant.