Green Energy in Michigan

Back in February, Greater Lansing Business Monthly featured a piece announcing East Lansing’s first solar panel project at Burcham Park. Over the last few months since that initial word was published, the sustainable energy climate has continued to heat up on a local level.

Michigan Energy Options (MEO), which has been in business since 1978, has been an integral part of the sustainable and renewable energy movement, especially here in mid-Michigan. With offices housed in East Lansing and Marquette, the nonprofit guides communities toward energy-efficient methods and means. John Kinch, executive director of MEO, spoke about the organization.

“Since 2011, we’ve been a contractor for the Lansing Board of Water & Light (BWL) to deliver their residential, energy-efficient programs,” Kinch said. “This work with the state’s largest municipal electric utility has been bringing electricity and dollar savings to BWL customers through energy-efficiency products such as LED lighting. From this relationship, we began talking to BWL about the possibility of creating the Greater Lansing region’s first community solar park.”

Creating a solar park within a residential area like East Lansing signaled concerns from the neighborhood. Questions arose at council meetings regarding the appearance and effect that construction would have on neighborhood landscapes. According to Kinch, the retired, capped landfill site is an ideal location.

“Reuse of closed landfills into solar generation is one of the best practices out there. You aren’t going to redevelop that site into a daycare center. And we also want to fit in with the ‘park’ part of Burcham Park,” Kinch said. “We will be planting pollinator-friendly native plants for the bees and butterflies. We have a beautiful stainless-steel sculpture ready to go by Jim Cunningham, and we’ll have educational signage. We want community members to visit and request tours — learning about solar power and enjoying the space.”

The solar project was designed with input from surrounding neighborhoods, and they are welcome to lease panels themselves; nearly half of the panels have been leased so far to over 100 different residents or organizations.

The project allows BWL customers to support the green initiative without needing to have panels on their private property. Participants sign up for a 25-year lease and pay a single, upfront cost of $399 per panel. They’ll receive a monthly BWL credit on their billing statement, reflecting the amount of solar energy produced from the panel. The community solar array is expected to be installed this fall once 60-80 percent of the panels are leased.

Not only was the public’s input for the project welcomed, but nonprofits were invited to enter and win their own panels to save them money.

“We’ve been engaging various neighborhood groups and attending community events to share the project around town,” Kinch said. “We recently offered a promotion to give ten free panels to a local nonprofit. We have gotten a terrific response. Nonprofits were asked to write a brief essay as to why they should get the panels.”

BWL also offers a program in which homeowners can reap benefits from the rays without the leasing of solar panels. The Green Wise Program is a BWL program which allows customers to pay an additional $7.50 per month for a 250 kWh battery and provide support to Michigan energy funds.

Both the discussions and emphasis on renewable energy have also been an increasingly relevant part of our local university, Michigan State University (MSU). In 2009, MSU developed its Energy Transition Plan (ETP) with the goal of transitioning the campus to utilizing 100 percent renewable energy.

The three fold ETP included improving physical environment, investing in sustainable energy research and development and becoming an educational leader in sustainable energy. On March 24, 2016, MSU officially stopped burning coal at the TB Simon Power Plant to reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 575-million annual pounds.

In 2017, the campus installed its first of a projected five solar carport locations. Purchased through a fixed rate through a 25-year power purchases agreement, this project further solidifies MSU’s spot amongst top university-based leaders in sustainable energy. Without relying on fossil fuels, the solar energy obtained from these installations is estimated to produce over 15,000 megawatt hours annually, while also providing 5 percent of the electricity used on campus each year.

Some concerns over these projects were a loss of parking spots, but, the way the panels are constructed, they are not obtrusive and no parking spots were removed. The array will have more than 40,000 individual solar panels, each measured at 6 feet wide by 3 feet tall.

According to the MSU Infrastructure Planning & Facilities, the goal is 40 percent power by renewable energy on campus and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 65 percent by 2030.

From a statewide standpoint, legislation passed by Gov. Rick Snyder has increased the implementation of energy-efficient projects and programs. As of April 2017, The Michigan State Senate 437 and 438 bills require Michigan utilities to buy or produce at least 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2022. There’s also a no-binding goal to reach 35 percent by 2025.

While headway is certainly being made to transition from fossil fuels to a cleaner, more sustainable energy output, it’s indeed an ongoing process; according to Kinch, it’s one that’s been emerging for a few decades now. While the prices for solar panels and components are decreasing — and the technology is advancing — public perception is simply moving at a different pace.

“The mindset change is coming more slowly — sometimes, painfully slow,” Kinch said. “But residents, businesses and institutions are becoming more convinced that solar [energy] works in Michigan. There’s a perception that we’re too cloudy of a state for solar to work. Wrong: Germany has far fewer solar gain days than Michigan and it’s one of the world`s leaders in solar.”

Some misconceptions stem from the false belief that solar power is too complicated and too costly.

“The biggest positive mindset change is people, communities and utilities seeing local solar power as a smart way to be more resilient to an unknown future, such as the increased frequency and intensity of weather events,” Kinch said.

While solar energy projects like the panel carports and arrays include money-saving components, they’re also capable of bringing revenue to the surrounding community.

“This is a hot topic in energy and economic circles, and it can get real complicated really quickly,” Kinch said. “Suffice it [to] say that, increasingly, communities are seeing developing solar energy as a placemaking strategy just as it is creating non-motorized trails, vibrant downtowns and walkable neighborhoods. Investing in renewable energy can improve the triple bottom line of a place — having multiple social, economic and environmental benefits.”

With these and other energy-efficient projects, the Greater Lansing area is well on its way to becoming a leading force in meeting statewide sustainability goals.. There are plenty of ways for homeowners and residents to reduce waste and consumption, which factors into a better environment and community.

“Energy is an important piece of being ‘green,’ as you say,” Kinch said. “But it is not the only element. Supply and waste streams matter … In fact, there are companies that specialize in helping [other] companies to be as sustainable as possible. And here’s the most encouraging part — more and more, the reason companies are doing this is because their customers are demanding it. This is market transformation at work, which is a powerful force within a capitalistic economy. People are making social and environmental change with their wallets.”

Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn

Sarah Spohn received her degree in Journalism from Lansing Community College. She’s a concert junkie; living and breathing in both the local and national music scene. She is proud to call Lansing her home, finding a new reason every day to be smitten with the mitten.

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