Traverse City News and Events

SUN Turns One. What Next?

March 29, 2014

Nearly a year after two local utilities launched a first of its kind community solar project in Michigan, officials are pleased with initial success – but holding off on expansion.

The Solar Up North (SUN) Alliance officially launched in June 2013 after Cherryland Electric Cooperative built 224 photovoltaic panels next to its headquarters in Grawn with Traverse City Light & Power a partner in the project. To date, some 190 panels have been purchased by the utilities’ customers – and nearly 30,500 kilowatt hours generated (measured since April 2013).

“I consider it a success because we actually did something instead of just talking about it,” said Cherryland General Manager Tony Anderson. “It may not be perfect, but people are buying in.”

Here’s how it works: Members of either utility can purchase a solar share for $470 – a $75 Energy Optimization rebate drops the investment to $395. Participants then receive an average $2 credit on their monthly electric bills. Depending on the solar array output and cost of electricity, the total cost could be recouped in 15 to 20 years.

Anderson said some could argue that because the initial project isn’t “sold out” that it’s not a success. “I’m very happy,” he said. “It’s done what we wanted it to do. I think it’s a good brick and mortar survey for how the community supports solar energy at this time.”

Since the SUN Alliance, only one other Michigan electric cooperative has followed in Cherryland’s footsteps: the HomeWorks Tri-County Electric Cooperative has a solar garden now under construction in Portland.

So what now? Anderson said Cherryland didn’t have a “definite plan for expansion” after this initial project was launched. “We went into this with the plan that when this one fills out, then we’ll talk and take a next step,” he said, adding that there have been preliminary discussions with NMC about partnering on a future project.

TCL&P, however, was more eager – but now those plans have been delayed.

Based on support voiced by its customer base for community solar, staff did think the initial project would sell out and so initially had $250,000 earmarked for an expansion in its 2014-15 capital improvement plan, according to Jessica Wheaton, TCL&P’s marketing and community relations coordinator.

Instead, a “Phase 2” solar project on TCL&P property now appears in the 2016-17 improvement plan. Executive Director Tim Arends said the next phase would “remain a community-focused model’ by continuing to partner with Cherryland and possibly others.

The utility would like to have a portion of the proposed Phase 2 “pre-filled” with solar share investors and those outreach efforts will take time, added Wheaton.

“TCL&P plans to do everything possible to encourage customers who are interested in participating to do so,” said Arends. “But ultimately it will depend on the community’s acceptance of the project to determine if a Phase 2 will succeed.”

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