Traverse City News and Events

Solar By The Numbers: Power, Potential (And Some Problems)

By Craig Manning | Aug. 29, 2021

Have you ever driven by the massive solar array in Cadillac and wondered how much energy it produces or where that power goes? That array, built five years ago by the Cadillac-based Spartan Renewable Energy – and known as part of the “SpartanSolar project” – is the single largest solar array in northern Michigan. Spanning 4,352 panels and capable of producing 1.2 megawatts of electricity, the solar farm powers some 200 homes throughout Michigan – many of them right here in Traverse City. The Ticker crunched the numbers to learn more about the array’s impact on the local area – and what kind of future foothold renewable energy might have here.

While the SpartanSolar array was built by Spartan, the power it produces is actually sold through Spartan’s parent company, Wolverine Power Cooperative. Described as a “not-for-profit, member-owned generation and transmission electric cooperative,” Wolverine supplies wholesale electric power to five distribution electric cooperatives throughout Michigan. One of those cooperatives? Cherryland Electric.

According to Cherryland Member Relations Manager Rachel Johnson, power from the Cadillac SpartanSolar array – as well as a second SpartanSolar installation in the southern Michigan town of Cassopolis – breaks down into “shares,” which can be leased and used by members of the five cooperatives that own Wolverine Power. In total, she says “1,800 shares have been leased and 4,900 remain available,” with Cherryland’s members representing “about one-third of the total leased shares.” 117 Cherryland members have bought into the SpartanSolar project so far, leasing a total 612 shares.

Cherryland also built the state’s very first community solar array back in 2013, in partnership with Traverse City Light & Power. That array, the Solar Up North (SUN) Alliance community solar project, includes 224 solar panels and sold out all its available member shares in its first year.

Each share of the SpartanSolar project essentially entitles the holder to credits on their monthly energy bills. A share costs $600 upfront, but Cherryland offers a $50 rebate on each share purchased, for an after-rebate cost of $550. The utility also pays each shareholder 10 cents per kilowatt-hour for the energy output of the solar array, which Johnson says “equates to about $40 per year in bill credits, per share.” With a contract length of 15 years, each share is worth approximately $600 over the length of the contract – providing a complete payback and a small profit over time for shareholders when compared to the after-rebate share cost.

That modest payback could explain why, nearly five years in, less than 40 percent of the available SpartanSolar shares have been claimed. That doesn’t mean the power produced isn’t going to use. The five cooperatives that share ownership of Wolverine Power Company and the SpartanSolar project – Cherryland, Great Lakes Energy (Boyne City), Midwest Energy & Communications (Cassopolis), HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative (Portland), and Presque Isle Electric & Gas Co-op (Onaway) – collectively provide power “to more than 268,000 homes, businesses, and farms in over 40 counties.” Some of that power comes from the 210 megawatts of renewable energy capacity that Wolverine has in its portfolio, including from the 2.0-megawatt SpartanSolar project.

Johnson acknowledges that, without a quicker payback or bigger return on investment, it can sometimes be difficult to get customers to invest in solar opportunities such as SpartanSolar. “One of the top questions [from members] is usually about expected return on investment,” she says. Still, Johnson sees value in the program’s ability to provide renewable energy options for people who don’t want to take on the bigger investment of installing and maintaining solar systems of their own.

“Our job as their utility is to make sure that our members understand how our consumer-owned renewable programs work so they can make the best decision for their home,” Johnson explains.

“That’s why we offer community solar; net metering, where they use what they produce and sell any excess back to us; and a ‘buy all’ program, where they can sell us all of the energy they produce. Depending on a member’s goals, one of these programs may work better for them than another.”

Globally, interest in renewable energy is growing. According to the International Energy Agency, the world’s total renewable energy capacity increased 45 percent in 2020, driven by what the agency described as “an unprecedented boom” in wind and solar. Worldwide, there was a 23 percent expansion in solar power capacity last year, and a 90 percent increase for wind.

Johnson expects that local interest in solar will continue to grow. Solar technology “has improved considerably” in recent years, she says, and utilities like Cherryland are consistently taking steps to “upgrade and build new transmission assets to move that renewable energy around the grid system.” She envisions those efforts will pave the way toward larger power outputs, lower transmission costs, and better payback periods and ROI for those who buy in.

For now, solar remains a small part of northern Michigan’s power capacity, and it’s also a divisive part. With the technology being what it has been, Johnson acknowledges that “solar does require more land use than other electric generation sources – renewable and non-renewable.” A one-megawatt solar array, she notes, “requires approximately five acres of land,” where a natural gas power plant “can produce about 100 megawatts of power per acre.” Excessive land use is just one of the arguments used against solar energy – and helps explain why, of Wolverine Power’s 210 megawatts of renewable energy capacity, the vast majority of it still comes from wind and hydroelectric sources. “Solar has only recently become competitive with those other resources,” Johnson adds.

Weighing the pros and cons of solar and other energy sources is ultimately a huge part of how utilities like Cherryland Electric operate, and investing more in those sources as efficiency improves is part of that equation. Also important, Johnson says, is thinking more broadly about “carbon-free” energy, which can incorporate both renewable and nuclear sources. “Our current power supply portfolio is over 60 percent carbon-free,” Johnson says of Wolverine Power, noting that “we purposely focus on carbon-free as opposed to only focusing on renewable energy because we believe that decreasing our carbon impact is a more important priority than focusing narrowly on just renewable energy.”

“There is no single form of electric generation that is the cheapest, most reliable, cleanest, least impactful to land use, etc.,” Johnson continues. “But, when we invest in the right mix, we are able to leverage the strengths of each power source while mitigating the challenges.”

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