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Midwest solar power in Michigan

National Grid Renewables was able to take on the challenge of building two major solar power projects during COVID times, which together are now delivering 40 MW of renewable power in Michigan.

By Robin Brunet

Even though Michigan is among the lowest U.S. states for solar irradiance, it is one of the country's leaders in putting solar power on the grid-and the National Grid Renewables' (NG Renewables) Bingham and Temperance solar projects are the latest examples of the benefits to be had from such undertakings.

As part of NG Renewables' MiSolar Portfolio, Bingham and Temperance (which are located in Clinton and Monroe counties respectively, in central/south Michigan) produce 40 megawatts of solar power, which contributes to Michigan's goal to use 120 TWh of solar power per year by 2030.

Now operational, the MiSolar sites are staffed by operations and maintenance people. In addition to employment, during the first 20 years of operation, MiSolar is projected to further benefit the community through approximately $6 million in new tax revenue, based on current Michigan law. Throughout that same time period, the combined projects are estimated to offset carbon dioxide emissions by over 50,000 metric tons annually.

NG Renewables (formerly known as Geronimo Energy) is part of the competitive, unregulated National Grid Ventures division of National Grid and develops, owns and operates large-scale renewable energy assets across the U.S., including wind and battery storage in addition to solar. It prides itself on being a farmer-friendly and community-focused business, and it seeks to help repower America›s electricity grid by reigniting local economies and reinvesting in a clean energy future.

NG Renewables began coordinating with local jurisdictions in 2018 for the Bingham and Temperance projects.

"Communication was frequent and included project kick-off and pre-construction meetings," says Kara Heffelbower, developer for NG Renewables and lead developer on both Temperance and Bingham. "The continued coordination between us and local agencies helped ensure all project permit requirements were met and also paved the way for a stronger relationship between the projects and their host communities."

Michigan-based J. Ranck Electric, Inc. (JRE) was retained for the engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) of the two ground-mounted solar arrays. JRE's Renewable Energy Division is a leader in bringing solar energy solutions to some of the largest and unique installations across the country, and its contract included the installation of AC and DC electrical work, the installation of inverters, transformers/AC combiners, equipment pads and racks, and collection systems.

 
The Bingham and Temperance solar projects, which are located in central/south Michigan, are now producing 40 megawatts of solar power, which contributes to Michigan's goal to use 120 TWh of solar power per year by 2030.  
  

Site conditions at both locations were favourable. "The topography was fairly flat, which is great for the layout of the projects," Heffelbower said, adding that there were no undue soil conditions, plenty of space was available for staging equipment, and not much civil work was required. Plus, both sites had good access to and from major highways.

During peak construction, Bingham and Temperance employed approximately 160 workers, 95 percent of which were recruited from communities within 100 miles of each site. "Additional MiSolar job and economic benefits resulted from utilizing Michigan-based subcontractors, including the Hydaker-Wheatlake Company, based out of Reed City, Michigan," Heffelbower says.

The 123-acre Temperance site, designed to produce 20 MW of energy, consisted of 74,790 Trina bifacial solar modules (390, 395, and 400 W); an Array Technology tracking system; 962 rows of tracker systems capable of turning 32 rows at once to follow the sun; and 160 125 kW Yaskawa Solectria XGI inverters.

The 121-acre Bingham site, also designed to produce 20 MW of energy, consisted of an Array Technology Tracking System; 160 125 kW Yaskawa Solectria XGI inverters; 960 rows of tracker systems capable of turning 32 rows at once to follow the sun; and 73,440 Trina bifacial modules (400 W).

Each site included construction of a 46 kV substation, and JRE also installed the raceways and cabling for the NLS communication system for the arrays. According to JRE, 320 combiner boxes were installed in total, along with 21,255 posts, 16 35kV transformers, 79 tracking motors, 1,922 gear boxes, and 18,839 feet of fiber optic cable.

 
  Michigan-based J. Ranck Electric, Inc. was retained for the engineering, procurement, and construction (EPC) of the two ground-mounted solar arrays. The projects employed approximately 160 workers, 95 percent of which were recruited from communities within 100 miles of each site.
  

Heffelbower notes: "As with all construction projects, the weather was challenging at times, including some periods of persistent rain. But the contractors and suppliers worked well as a team, and overall, timelines and expectations were well-communicated across all parties to ensure timely builds."

When asked what was the biggest challenge of both projects, Heffelbower replied: "They were built during the pandemic, which increased health and safety protocols and requirements. All project safety and construction teams rose to the occasion to ensure everyone's health and safety, while maintaining the overall project schedules."

NG Renewables' collaboration with J. Ranck Electric went a long way in ensuring the success of Bingham and Temperance: the electrical engineering firm is behind some of the largest solar projects in Michigan. They include the 2017 redevelopment of the abandoned O'Shea Park in Detroit into an urban solar farm, a project whose 7,398 Suniva Panels and 390 Solar FlexRacks generate 2.5 MW for 450 homes. That same year, JRE was the prime contractor for the largest utility-owned solar array east of the Mississippi River, in Lapeer, a project that consisted of two separate arrays of over 188,000 solar panels on nearly 420 acres of land. Today, the Demille and Turill arrays generate enough power for 9,000 homes.

Domino's Farms in Ann Arbor, Michigan is yet another keystone project for the state. JRE turned an under-utilized nine-acre parcel of land at the Domino's Farms offices into a site they are leasing for 20 years. Over 500 helical piers, 4,032 panels, and two 500-kW inverters made up the array, which is four modules high and arranged in a portrait configuration, with the top of each row of panels reaching 25 feet high.

 
Solar power looks to have a bright future in Michigan. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the state now has 520 MW of installed solar power, some 105 MW of that having been installed in 2020.  
  

Solar in Michigan has gone from providing only about 0.25 percent of all electricity in 2016 to reaching a capacity of 520 MW in 2020. Even though it is among the lowest U.S. states for solar irradiance, the reasons for growth are simple: technological improvements, falling solar prices, and a variety of regulatory actions and financial incentives, particularly a 30 percent federal tax credit available for any size project.

As in every state, solar development in Michigan has had its fair share of gains and losses. In 2018, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) issued a ruling finalizing the rates and contract terms that Consumers Energy Co., one of Michigan's largest investor-owned utilities, must pay for energy and capacity from solar energy facilities. The ruling provided much-needed certainty for the solar sector and was viewed as something that would end project delays and lack of investment.

Earlier this year, however, the MPSC approved Consumers Energy's request to cut the rate it pays for solar generation sent back to the grid by 46 percent. "It definitely makes things harder and will increase how long it takes customers to recover their investment in the system," Will Kenworthy, regulatory director for the national solar industry group Vote Solar, told local press.

Still, other solar proponents saw a potential silver lining in the ruling: "I really think this is going to help drive large-scale adoption of storage, and that ultimately is a super good thing for the grid," said Rob Rafson, President of Muskegon-based solar developer Chart House Energy.

In the meantime, work on many fronts continues to support the MPSC's Clean Energy Plan, which seeks to reduce carbon emissions by more than 90 percent and meet customers' future electricity capacity needs with 90 percent clean energy resources by 2040. And on that score, NG Renewables' MiSolar Bingham and Temperance arrays have been credited as contributing to the cause. Tim Sparks, Vice President of Electric Grid Integration at Consumers Energy told media: "Projects like these will help us realize our Clean Energy Plan. It's exciting to have two of their large-scale projects online, and we thank National Grid Renewables for their shared clean energy vision."

Solar power does indeed look to have a bright future in Michigan. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), the state now has 520 MW of installed solar power, some 105 MW of that having been installed in 2020. In the first quarter of 2021, Michigan was among the top 10 states in solar power installed in the U.S. A further 1,800 MW is projected to be installed over the next five years.

The solar industry has invested $714 million in Michigan, including $143 million in 2020, and there are 188 solar companies operating in the state.

Part of what is driving solar power in Michigan is that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced plans earlier this year to transition all of its state-owned office buildings to 100 percent renewable energy by 2025.

There is a further Michigan connection driving the move to renewable energy at the federal level: former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm now heads up the Department of Energy, and has announced a number of renewable energy initiatives since her appointment earlier this year.

 


Q3 2021