GRAND RAPIDS — City officials are reviving plans for a solar project at a former Grand Rapids landfill as the city sorts through broader questions about potential generation at seven other city-owned properties.
The Grand Rapids Office of Sustainability is leading an Energy Advisory Committee that, among other topics, is considering the potential for solar projects to help meet a 100-percent renewable energy goal for city operations by 2025.
A study conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory looked at eight sites — including the Butterworth Landfill on the city’s southwest side — for potential solar installations. After faulty modeling this summer produced results showing most projects would have cost the city over the 25-year life of the projects, officials are revisiting the study, said Alison Waske Sutter, who leads the sustainability office.
“We anticipate the results will show it does make sense economically and financially for us to install solar at some facilities,” Waske Sutter told MiBiz.
The biggest of the eight is the Butterworth Landfill site, which could potentially host a 15-megawatt project, according to studies. The city pursued a 2.25 MW project there in 2016, but the plan was abandoned after the developer “disappeared” and stopped communicating, city officials said previously.
The city hopes to issue a request for proposals by the end of the year for a new project that would similarly be developed by a third party.
For at least some of the remaining sites, however, Waske Sutter anticipates the city building and owning the solar projects.
The federal study looked at seven city-owned sites: the Lake Michigan water filtration plant in Ottawa County, the Market Avenue retention basin, City Hall, the Grand Rapids Police Department downtown station, the Bridge Street Fire Station, the water treatment facility and a parking lot carport. The filtration plant has the largest potential of these seven sites at 2 MW, according to the study. Together, the sites could total around 4 MW of solar potential, not including the Butterworth location.
However, the city is working through a series of questions about the economics of these projects. Waske Sutter plans to have the modeling study redone with new assumptions. Initial results showed that owning the projects under a net metering agreement with Consumers Energy — the city’s utility — would have resulted in a net cost over the life of the projects.
Solar installations are expected to pay for themselves over varying time frames based on electricity that’s not purchased from the utility. Waske Sutter said the original inputs were discovered to be faulty during a series of recent email communications with Consumers.
“To me, it’s important to show we’re partnering with the Department of Energy and with Consumers Energy,” Waske Sutter said.
At a recent meeting of the city’s Energy Advisory Committee, a Consumers representative said there would be additional options for the city to make its case for working out solar programs. In January, the utility is expected to file a new rate case with the Michigan Public Service Commission, which requires the utility to design a new “distributed generation program” to replace net metering. Grand Rapids could potentially see more favorable terms for the amount that it is credited by Consumers for sending solar power back to the grid.
The federal study was completed under Grand Rapids’ attempt to be designated a “SolSmart” community, a national program from the U.S. Department of Energy on local governments’ solar-friendly policies. Ypsilanti currently is the only Michigan city with a SolSmart designation.
To achieve a silver or gold rating, Grand Rapids would need to revise local regulations that are considered barriers by the National League of Cities, which helps administer the SolSmart program. This includes a policy that seemingly prevents solar panels on street-facing roofs, even though residents can get a variance to bypass the rule.
“Whether we’re silver or gold, the language is confusing,” Mayor Rosalyn Bliss said of the ordinance at the Aug. 12 Energy Advisory Committee. “If I was a homeowner and read that, I would think it’s prohibitive. We want to make sure that what we’re practicing is truly, truly encouraging people to add solar.”
Waske Sutter said the city is “evaluating our next steps” ahead of an October meeting before the Planning Commission on ways to revise the ordinance.
As the city looks to open more properties for solar development, an increasing number of residents appear to be interested as well. City officials say roughly 20 people annually have sought permits to install panels in the past three years, up from just a couple applications a year before that.
Accommodating solar is just one aspect of the city’s broader sustainability and clean energy goals, which are included in the most recent four-year strategy that started on July 1.
“In the next four years, we’re trying to create and support policies that will help reduce carbon emissions across the community,” Waske Sutter said.