After plans for a wind energy project north of Grand Rapids fell apart late last year, a separate developer is looking to use hundreds of acres of rural land in Montcalm County for solar.
In December, AEP Renewables — a subsidiary of Ohio-based utility American Electric Power Co. Inc. — withdrew plans for the 100 megawatt Kenowa Ridge project in Casnovia and Tyrone townships that split Muskegon and Kent counties. AEP assumed ownership of the project last year when it bought out the previous owner, Sempra Renewables.
Casnovia Township and AEP Renewables were in a legal dispute over project conditions, including setback distances for turbines.
AEP Renewables “couldn’t reach agreement with the Casnovia Township Board to address some revisions and clarifications the township board made in the project,” said AEP spokesperson Melissa McHenry. “Without some agreement on the changes, the project was no longer viable and we determined it couldn’t be built to our standards.”
McHenry added that AEP Renewables isn’t planning any other wind projects in the area.
Casnovia Township officials approved a special use permit for the project in April with 32 conditions. AEP challenged three of the conditions in court, including the setback distances, said Casnovia Township Supervisor Kelli Ashbaugh. A separate lawsuit was filed against the township by residents opposed to the project as officials faced backlash over the prior special use permit approval.
Ashbaugh added that officials were concerned about noise, “shadow flicker” and the size of the turbines. The project was reportedly cancelled in December, and the lawsuits were formally dropped in January.
“We weren’t trying to be exclusionary,” Ashbaugh said. “There were (residents) who supported it all along, and others who didn’t. It was hard on the board and the planning commission.”
The Kenowa Ridge project would have been the first wind energy development in West Michigan since 2012 when the Lake Winds Energy Park was built in Mason County near Ludington.
Meanwhile, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based developer is eyeing property in northeastern Montcalm County for a $200 million solar project that would span up to 1,200 acres.
Freshwater Solar would be Ranger Power’s third large-scale solar project in Michigan. Construction has started on the firm’s 239 MW Assembly Solar project in Shiawassee County, while the company announced plans last year to sell power to Consumers Energy from its 149 MW River Fork project in Calhoun County.
Together, the three projects would total nearly 600 MW. Michigan currently has less than 200 MW of installed solar capacity.
Sean Harris, senior development manager at Ranger, said the company is still in the “landowner engagement” process over potential leases and has started meeting with local officials about the company’s plan.
He said two key factors behind choosing Montcalm County for the site were access to interconnecting to the grid and community acceptance.
“We got on the ground, spoke to landowners and found there was interest in the community,” Harris said. “It certainly seemed like local folks are excited about it.”
Harris added that Ranger started developing solar projects in Michigan in 2017. The state’s newly raised 15 percent renewable energy standard, relatively high cost of electricity and a series of coal plant retirements all “drove our interest in Michigan.”
“We’re finding even more interest from utilities in purchasing solar energy than we originally expected,” he said.
Solar and farmland
Ranger’s latest project also follows a new policy from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that opens agricultural land for solar development.
In early June 2019, Whitmer issued an order allowing property enrolled in the state’s Farmland Preservation (Public Act 116) program to be used for commercial solar projects. Landowners and developers need to meet several criteria, such as including pollinator habitat alongside panels, to effectively freeze the farmland preservation designation during the life of the project.
Ranger officials said they have encountered some Montcalm County parcels that are enrolled in farmland preservation. Developers are required to ensure drainage is maintained on the site and provide decommissioning bonds. The company’s “general policy is to avoid P.A. 116 parcels whenever possible,” Harris said.
Whitmer’s farmland solar policy is relatively new, and just two properties in the state — in Escanaba Township and Shiawassee County, one of Ranger’s other projects — have taken advantage of it, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
“The policy was really about using P.A. 116 parcels if that made sense in order for you to have one large contiguous block of land with solar panels on it,” said Jim Johnson, director of MDARD’s Environmental Stewardship Division. “There’s much less than I think a lot of people thought would be involved.”
Whitmer’s policy drew support from clean energy advocates who cited potential benefits of farmers diversifying their revenue through solar land leases. Johnson added that requirements of returning the land back to agricultural use after the life of the solar project “are no different than what they would typically do for a non-P.A. 116 piece of property.”
He said it’s still early to tell whether the policy will drive more solar on agricultural land. Most likely, large-scale solar projects may include a few parcels enrolled in farmland preservation rather than entire sites.
“There was some fear early on that we’d take a lot of P.A. 116 land out of production, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case,” Johnson said. “(Developers) are doing their best to find contiguous blocks of land that impact P.A. 116 as little as possible to go forward.”