GRAND RAPIDS — A recent settlement agreement approved by the Michigan Public Service Commission could finally create a viable path forward for a long-discussed solar project on a Grand Rapids brownfield.
For more than a decade, city officials have pursued plans for a large-scale solar project at the former Butterworth landfill on Grand Rapids’ west side. The project is seen as a model for potentially converting contaminated industrial property into clean energy production, also known as brownfield to brightfield projects.
The 190-acre Butterworth landfill is a remediated U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site. However, the solar project’s size and complexity have made it difficult for city officials to issue a request for proposals, while previous efforts to work with a private developer fell through in 2017 after the company “disappeared” and stopped communicating with the city.
City officials now believe the project could be a “community solar” development in which city residents could subscribe to shares of the project’s output. Community solar projects are meant to bring clean energy access for residents who can’t install panels themselves, sometimes at discounted rates for low-income residents.
Jackson-based utility Consumers Energy, which also supplies the city’s power, has emerged as a key player in the Butterworth solar project.
The Michigan Public Service Commission approved a settlement agreement on July 27 that includes a new pilot program within Consumers’ solar program. The “anchor tenant” pilot — created within a broader ruling involving the utility’s voluntary green pricing program — will allow entities such as businesses and nonprofits to be a central tenant of a community solar program. State regulators approved a similar pilot program for DTE Energy last year, which groups including the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council have said would improve access to community solar programs.
According to city officials, the anchor tenant option could be a key feature in allowing the Butterworth solar project to move forward. The city also is interested in creating a “low-income participation option at Butterworth that is accessible to city residents,” according to an April 19 letter from city officials to the MPSC.
“We believe that Consumers Energy’s anchor tenant option will play a critical role for the City in meeting its sustainability and climate change goals by providing us, as a municipality, the ability to directly participate in the development of community solar facilities and create win-win scenarios for underused and historically blighted municipal property,” according to the letter.
However, details about the potential arrangement between the city and Consumers is undetermined. The Detroit News reported in June that the project could include a 1.6 megawatt (MW) portion to feed into the city’s downtown grid and a 2.5 MW community solar portion.
Grand Rapids Sustainability and Performance Management Officer Alison Waske Sutter said in an emailed statement to MiBiz that the Butterworth project continues to be an option for the city to meet its goal of powering 100 percent of municipal operations with renewable energy by 2025.
“The Michigan Public Service Commission’s approval of a pilot at the Butterworth Landfill in partnership with Consumers Energy under their voluntary green pricing program gives us one additional path to explore for installing solar at Butterworth,” Waske Sutter said.
Consumers Energy Spokesperson Brian Wheeler said the utility will “keep working with the City of Grand Rapids to explore the Butterworth solar project and, like the city, hope the recent MPSC action might provide a path forward for this and other clean energy opportunities.”
Wheeler added that the utility hopes to redevelop additional brownfield sites in Michigan with solar energy, similar to a project unveiled last year in Cadillac.
“Our Cadillac solar facility is an example of how a brownfield-to-brightfield project can create new opportunities and produce tax revenue for communities,” Wheeler said in an email.
In 2015, the city selected a Massachusetts-based developer to build a 2.25 megawatt solar project on the property. By 2017, the developer had ceased responding to city officials, who then canceled plans for the project.
Former Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell initiated plans for solar at the landfill as part of a 100-percent renewable energy plan announced through his administration. After the 2017 fallout, city officials considered pursuing an anaerobic digestion project to replace it, with potentially small-scale solar onsite.
Waske Sutter said more details involving the Consumers Energy pilot program could come in mid November.