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Saturday, 15 September 2018 19:59

Two large-scale renewable energy projects planned in West Michigan

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Two large-scale renewable energy projects are moving forward along a stretch of M-46 in eastern Muskegon County.

One would be the largest solar project in Michigan at Muskegon County’s Wastewater Management System, while the other would be the first major wind project in the region since Consumers Energy’s Lake Winds project came online in Mason County in 2012.

Kansas-based Tradewind Energy has received necessary permitting and now is seeking off-takers for its 125-megawatt solar project at the wastewater treatment facility. By comparison, the largest solar project currently operating in Michigan in Lapeer County has a 48 MW capacity. Tradewind Senior Development Director Travis Narum hopes construction will begin in 2019 at the earliest.

About 15 miles east of the Tradewind project near the border with Kent County, a subsidiary of San Diego-based Sempra Energy recently announced plans for a 31-turbine, 100 MW wind project. The company has secured leases with landowners, and local residents first weighed in on the project at a public hearing in August. The project falls in Casnovia Township in Muskegon County and Tyrone Township in Kent County. Developers hope the project comes online in 2020.

However, at least one developer — who is also consulting on the Tradewind project — sees an easier path ahead for solar development in West Michigan compared to wind, which faces strong backlash from citizens concerned with noise and other annoyances.

Rich Vander Veen, a Marquette-based developer who helped lead major wind projects in Gratiot County, foresees solar as the more likely renewable source in West Michigan moving forward.

“Simply put, you have to have the geography, the geology, transmission and above all a local community that wants to issue local, state and federal permits,” said Vander Veen, the president of Mackinaw Power LLC. “The size of turbines continues to grow. You need fewer turbines, but at the same time, you need a willing community.”

Narum added that “wind is very site specific. I think West Michigan does have some wind potential, but it’s very site specific. (The region) has some large flat areas that are conducive to solar that you might not see toward Detroit and Ann Arbor that have smaller parcels.”

Sempra’s first public hearing in Casnovia Township was met with vocal opposition from some residents, according to news reports. It reflects a challenge for wind energy across the state, including in the Thumb region, leading developers increasingly to wonder if a “saturation point” with turbines has been reached. The Thumb has by far the highest concentration of wind development in Michigan.

Lisa Briggs, government and community affairs manager with Sempra Renewables, agrees the Thumb region is increasingly difficult for developers. Sempra owns the 100 MW Apple Blossom project in Huron County.

“The region is definitely saturated. That means developers need to look at other areas of the state if wind is to play a role in the renewable energy portfolio in Michigan,” Briggs said. “With improvements in wind turbine technology, areas that maybe weren’t viable a few years ago are now viable. Southwest Michigan is one of those areas.”

Briggs said the opposition at the Aug. 21 meeting was “not a surprise. I didn’t see it as excessive compared to any other wind development I’ve been involved in. To the extent we can address people’s concerns and mitigate them, we’re open to doing that.”

Vander Veen and other wind advocates say early community engagement is critical for wind — and increasingly solar — projects to move forward.

“If you’re doing that well, you might have the privilege of applying for permits, and you might be honored by having a project approved,” Vander Veen said. “You have to work with the community.”

Solar potential, challenges

Utilities and energy developers see the rapidly declining costs of solar as a key driver in the coming years.

Consumers Energy, which has solar projects at Grand Valley State University and Western Michigan University, plans to add more than 5,000 MW to its portfolio in the coming decades. The extent to which Consumers will build capacity itself or purchase it from other developers remains unclear, but the utility sees solar as an important component as it retires coal plants.

“The cost of solar energy is going down and relying on solar allows incremental additions on a yearly basis — which lets us leverage decreasing costs, adapt to changes and match supply with demand on a timely basis,” said Consumers spokesperson Katelyn Carey.

The wastewater treatment project originally was planned to include both wind and solar.

“As we studied it, we realized it’s really not that good for wind,” Vander Veen said of the site. “Amazingly there’s not that much wind on that open area there. Second, that whole area is renowned for migrating birds. Two strikes and you’re out on that one.”

Multiple out-of-state renewable developers are clamoring to build projects in Michigan, and at least one is exploring solar projects elsewhere around Muskegon, according to county Board of Public Works documents.

Earlier this year, the county approved a lease agreement with California-based TerraNavigator LLC for 21 acres at Muskegon Business Park North near Dalton to build a solar project. The company also is exploring a lease for 7.5 acres for a solar project at the Muskegon County Airport. TerraNavigator specializes in repurposing brownfield, landfill and surplus industrial property for renewable energy.

“We fundamentally believe it’s more rational and intelligent to approach the siting of these projects as adaptive reuse of previously distributed property as opposed to utilizing otherwise productive land uses,” said Christian Dick, TerraNavigator’s senior director of project development.

Dick said the company has an “active pipeline” of about 15 sites in Michigan, ranging from 2 MW to 100 MW.

However, uncertainty remains for developers as the Michigan Public Service Commission considers new rules for power contracted through the federal Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act. Under the law, utilities are required to buy power from developers if it’s the same cost or cheaper than what the utility could build for itself. However, parties are engaged in an ongoing debate over what utilities’ “avoided cost” should be.

Additionally, it’s unclear how Consumers’ competitive bidding process will work, Dick said.

“The true landscape of Michigan is very much in flux, despite the fact that Consumers has now come out with (plans) to procure a significant amount of solar generation within the next 20-plus years,” he said.

Muskegon County Commissioner Susie Hughes, who chairs the Public Works Board, said it can be a lengthy process for renewable energy projects to move through the various complex permitting phases.

While solar may hold the aesthetic advantage over wind, both options should be pursued, she said.

“People don’t have the same attitude toward solar as wind power,” she said. “But we do need to look at alternative energy options — both are very viable options for our county.”

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