This “solar farm” in Wells Township is a partnership between Thumb Electric Co-op and DTE Energy Co. Currently, it’s the only commercial solar project in Tuscola County, but that could change soon. (Photo by John Cook)

Solar talks heat up in Michigan’s Thumb

This “solar farm” in Wells Township is a partnership between Thumb Electric Co-op and DTE Energy Co. Currently, it’s the only commercial solar project in Tuscola County, but that could change soon. (Photo by John Cook)
This “solar farm” in Wells Township is a partnership between Thumb Electric Co-op and DTE Energy Co. Currently, it’s the only commercial solar project in Tuscola County, but that could change soon. (Photo by John Cook)

Talks of solar farms in Tuscola County are heating up, driven by at least one company looking to mine sun in the area.

Solar energy, in fact, is a topic of conversation just about everywhere locally, from a recent regular meeting of county clerks and Fremont Township planning commission, to Monday’s meeting of the Tuscola County board of commissioners’ meeting of the whole.

Officials from Tuscola County’s Dayton, Denmark, Almer, Fremont, Ellington, Fairgrove, and Gilford townships are among those to confirm awareness that the area is in the sights of a solar power company or companies. Similar reports also are coming out of Huron and Sanilac counties.

The interest is serious enough to have officials in Tuscola County considering, among other things, moratoriums so local laws can catch up with the technology.

“Since we have to investigate it, we are looking to impose a moratorium on solar energy development in Denmark Township,” said Chuck Heinlein, supervisor, Denmark Township.

“We don’t currently have an ordinance in place, but we’re planning to have one soon,” said Jim Mantey, supervisor, Almer Township. “We may protect the township with an interim moratorium until we can put a responsible ordinance in place.”

“We had an inquiry from a developer a few months ago,” said John McQuillan, treasurer, Fairgrove Township. He said the township’s engineering firm, Spicer Group Inc. of Saginaw, is addressing solar power in the township’s new zoning ordinance, with plans to have a draft by this summer.

Lyle Fryers, zoning administrator and member of the planning commission in Fremont Township, said he has been “in conversations” with a company that wants to build a “solar farm” in Fremont Township and is seeking at least 30 acres to make the project viable.

At least one company — Santa Monica, California-based Cypress Creek Renewables, which bills itself as “the nation’s fastest-growing solar farm developer” — is confirmed by several sources to be trying to secure leases with area landowners throughout the Thumb region.

Steve Erickson, executive director, Tuscola County Economic Development Corp., was among those to specifically name Cypress Creek as a company that has expressed interest in establishing a solar presence in Tuscola County.

Jeff McKay, spokesman for Cypress Creek, confirmed the company is looking at the area, but didn’t want to disclose too many details, saying work in the area is in the “very early stages of development.”

“Like other Midwestern states, Cypress Creek is excited about the prospect of developing solar in Michigan to support Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard and DTE Energy’s renewable goals,” McKay said.

According to a description on its website, “Cypress Creek Renewables partners with local communities and utilities to provide widespread access to affordable, clean energy. Cypress Creek Renewables’ solar solutions produce energy at or below market costs, while our locally based development strategy allows us to deploy solar where the power is needed most. With well over $1.5 billion raised and invested and over 4 gigawatts of local solar farms deployed or in development (enough to power 750,000 homes), Cypress Creek Renewables is the largest and fastest-growing dedicated provider of local solar farms.”

The company has a blogpost on its website that explains its approach to building “solar farms”:

“When you think of a solar farm, you may imagine sprawling developments with solar panels as far as the eye can see—that’s not us. We are not developers of massive solar farms spanning thousands of acres; rather, we focus our attention on small utility-scale solar farms that generate anywhere from 2–20 megawatts in electricity.”

Reports of other Cypress Creek projects from around the country indicate an investment of about $1 million for each megawatt generated by a project.

“Because of the relatively small size of our solar projects, the parcels we look at for land lease can be anywhere from 20 continuous acres up to 150 continuous acres or more depending on the project,” the website states.

“One of the benefits of focusing on smaller developments is that in many instances landowners don’t have to commit to leasing the entirety of their land,” the Cypress Creek website reads. “This way, landowners who want to continue with traditional farming or keep portions of their land available for other uses, have the freedom to do so.”

The site also explains the leases are 40 years, and it offers a bulleted list that claims to be the benefits of leasing land for a “solar farm”:

  • Quiet
  • Clean
  • Use Minimal Water: The company says it periodically washes dust off panels, “but that’s about it for water usage.”
  • Are Virtually Invisible: Cypress Creek claims after “the vegetation buffer zone has matured, the farm will be hidden from view.”
  • Require Minimal Upkeep: “As a photovoltaic solar farm developer, our arrays have no moving parts and basically just sit there soaking up the sun’s energy,” the company says on its website. “The simplicity of the design means there is not too much that can go wrong. We’ll have to provide maintenance from time to time and troubleshoot any issues that may arise, but other than ground maintenance, there’s just not that much to do.”
  • Have Close To Zero Environmental Impact: “When we enter into a land lease, it’s only after we’ve determined that the land is suitable for a solar farm in its existing state,” the company says. “Among other things, this means the acreage is flat, continuous and in relative close proximity to existing utility substations. Suitable land does not harbor any endangered or threatened species, and is not a wetland.”

While solar panels and small-scale systems are sprinkled throughout the region for individual uses, various officials admit they are largely unprepared for larger-scale solar operations.

Communities such as Ellington Township aren’t about to rush into it, either.

“I have high expectations of the current township boards,” said Russell Speirs, supervisor, Ellington Township. “I expect we will see the townships over the tri-county area will have open communication with each other. I am hopeful they will pool their knowledge to ensure quality decisions are made and that they keep awareness in the community high.”

At the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners’ committee of the whole meeting on Monday, discussion largely surrounded how they would be assessed and could factor into the county’s revenue.

Angie Daniels, director of equalization, Tuscola County, said “solar farms” are taxed “very similar to the wind turbines.”

“They’re industrial personal property, so they don’t pay state education tax or school operating,” she said.

Daniels noted Tuscola County currently has one true “solar farm” in Wells Township that is a partnership between Thumb Electric Co-Op and DTE Energy and has a 2016 taxable value of “just over $1.62 million.”

“So just slightly over the value of one wind turbine, I guess, is how I compare it,” she said.

Tuscola County Commissioner Matthew Bierlein questioned Daniels about the size of the Wells Township project. A description on the DTE website indicates there are about 2,600 panels at the Wells Township site.

“It is a decent size until you look at like Lapeer County,” she said. “Lapeer County just put in a project — they completed it at the end of 2016, I believe — it covers two parcels of land and the one, I know, is over 110,000 panels.”

When announcing that Lapeer County project, DTE called it “one of the largest utility-owned solar arrays east of the Mississippi River and more than 15 times larger than any other solar installation in Michigan.”

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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