Michigan’s Bright Idea – Solar Power Lights Up the State’s Energy Mix

Solar power works in Michigan.

Plants use it; so can factories. There are as many ways to use the sun’s rays as there are potential jobs in the renewable energy field.

What trips people up is Michigan’s long, gray winters. And if you have tried to plan a picnic this past summer, the unusual amount of rain lately may have you scratching your head about just how effective energy from the sun can be in the Great Lake State.

It turns out, it is incredibly effective. To offer a comparison, Detroit has roughly 2,375 hours of sunshine per year. Sun City Center in Florida has about 2,927 hours. Those thousands of hours warm the state like a cozy mitten in winter and offer a tremendous source of free energy all year long.

Businesses have already seen the benefits of solar power. General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. partnered with DTE a few years ago to install large solar panel arrays in some of their Southeast Michigan factory parking lots. Other institutions can benefit as well; recently, Mercy High School in Farmington Hills had panels installed on their roof.

DTE Energy approached us because they knew of our mission, says Dr. Cheryl Kreger, president of Mercy High School. It’s one of the Critical Concerns of the Sisters of Mercy: To act in harmony and interdependence with all of creation.

Solar spurs conservation, says Dr. Cheryl Kreger, president of Mercy High School.

It works in Seattle, Siberia and the South Pole, too. Any place on the planet where there is any kind of daylight already benefits from solar energy. For example, Germany leads the world in generating solar power even though their climate is about as sunny as Alaska’s.

Harnessing that energy and using it to Michigan’s advantage has become much easier. Until the end of 2016, there is a sizable 30 percent tax credit promised from the federal government for any home or business that installs a solar electric system.

The U.S. Department of Energy has also kicked in more than $500 million for their localized Better Buildings Neighborhood Program. The money, slotted through the end of 2013, is going toward significant energy efficiency improvements in key cities across the country, including Detroit, Southeast Michigan suburbs, the city of Grand Rapids and other communities throughout the state.

Incentives spark growth
Organizations like Michigan Saves offers businesses up to $150,000 in financing for making energy improvements. If you’re in the food industry, they’ll kick in an added $4,000 bonus if you trim your building’s power consumption by 20 percent or more.

There have been several programs offered in Michigan, designed to train or re-train workers in the new technology. Henry Ford Community College, for instance, offers a course in Wind, Solar and Fuel Cell Technology to explore the theory of operation and applications of technologies including active and passive solar. Other institutions, like Oakland and Macomb Community Colleges offer varying classes including Renewable Energies and Sustainable Living certificate programs.

Grand Valley State University operates the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center (MAREC) in Muskegon. MAREC’s mission is to be a destination point for business and technology development with a focus on the alternative and renewable energy sector.

Consumers Energy has been accepting applications from residential and non-residential customers who plan on integrating solar electric generating systems. For the past several years, as part of their Experimental Advanced Renewable Program (EARP), a limited number of applicants statewide have been able to sell back the electricity they’ve generated with their solar photovoltaic systems as part of Michigan’s 2008 energy reform law.

DTE offers a pilot SolarCurrents program for businesses and residential homes. The company is accepting applications for a small, select group of earlier adopters to solar. They help with financial incentives and in return, receive the Renewable Energy Credits from the electricity generated. Applicants for the program submit a request and a limited pool of winners are selected via lottery.

The most common ways people use the sun are Passive Solar and Active Solar. Passive solar energy has been around since the beginning of time. Our distant ancestors situated their rooms so they faced toward the sun or built their structures so the sun would warm them by day and then slowly cool, emitting heat by night. The Anasazi Native Americans built their cliff homes, entire cities, with all southern exposure.

Active solar energy uses either photovoltaic devices better known as solar cells or solar thermal energy, which concentrates and directs the light of the sun to greatly increase its intensity and heat. Concentrating the sun’s rays works best in states like California, Arizona and New Mexico, where power plants generate electricity. Photovoltaic or producing energy simply from daylight striking a solar cell is better suited for northern states.

The learning curve
Back at Mercy High School in Farmington Hills, it took more than half a year of discussions and meetings before the panels were installed on the school’s roof. There was an approval process and the building had to be checked for structural integrity. Plus, it’s a 20-year commitment.

They wanted be sure we would be around in 20 years, explains Kreger. We are thriving and have been here for 70 years.

She continues, For the 20 years we allow this on our roof, DTE is donating one scholarship per year for a student to attend our school.

Mercy High School has received many awards for its green efforts. But apart from the money and accolades, Kreger reports the solar array is lovely to look at; it’s an attractive display.

It’s also, cough/gasp, educational. Inside the school, there’s a digital display meter telling the students and faculty just how much electricity is being produced and fed back into the grid.

We have the largest roof-top array in Michigan, but it really isn’t visible from the ground. We have to advertise it but we are very proud of it, says Kreger. I would recommend that anyone participate in a similar effort. We want to live in harmony and preserve the earth for future generations. It’s a wonderful effort, philosophically.

Plus, Kreger concludes, it’s fun to be part of a cutting edge effort like this.

A flexible approach
But solar panels aren’t the only way to squeeze juice from the sun. A newer breed of thin, flexible solar shingles manufactured by Midland’s Dow Chemical Company are hitting rooftops around the country. These Powerhouse solar shingles measure about a half-inch in thickness and pump out voltage through a range of weather conditions, not just full-on sunny summer days. Plus, they double as actual shingles, mitigating the need for roofing in the area. The shingles act as, well, shingles.

Roof coverings like these shingles have been called stealth solar since they don’t match people’s normal impressions of what solar power looks like. Plus, they are cheaper to manufacture. Once the shingles are installed, they last for at least 15 – 20 years with virtually no maintenance requirements.

Dow picked up the baton where Michigan-based Uni-Solar dropped it. Uni-Solar manufactured even thinner flexible solar shingles and sold them mostly outside of the country. The company went bankrupt in 2012, a victim partially of the global recession. Their demise was compounded by the lower cost solar panels produced in China and subsidized by their government.

Other solar panel manufacturers in the United States have had severe economic difficulties competing with China. The New York Times recently reported that Nearly a dozen U.S. makers of solar panels have gone bankrupt or closed factories, unable to compete with low-cost Chinese imports.

Desert harvesting and transmission
But for an ever-increasing world population, the demand for energy is only going up. It makes great business sense to get in on the earlier stages of alternative energy implementation. According to The Energy Mix, by Neil Morris, there is enough sunlight reaching the planet’s surface every minute to sate the world’s energy needs for an entire year.

Put another way, the U.S. Energy Information Administration posits that covering a meager 4 percent of the world’s deserts with photovoltaics could supply the rest of the planet with their increased electricity demands. If China ever weans itself from their carbon dependency, Mongolia’s Gobi Desert alone could generate most of the rest of the earth’s electricity needs.

Abu Dhabi seems to have already taken this to heart. A vast array of mirrors in their desert generates enough electricity to power about 20,000 homes by concentrating sunlight and creating steam to spin turbines.

Oil and gas companies already use small-scale solar systems to help charge batteries in their pipeline systems. Small panel arrays appear along pipelines to power the outdoor monitoring equipment. And it’s used on much larger scales, like the aforementioned electricity generating plants in sunnier climes.

Annual average solar resource data are for a solar collector oriented toward the south at a tilt = local latitude. The data for Hawaii and the 48 contiguous states are derived from a model developed at SUNY/Albany using geostationary weather satellite data for the period 1998-2005. The data for Alaska are derived from a 40-km satellite and surface cloud cover database for the period 1985-1991 (NREL, 2003). The data for Germany and Spain were acquired from the Joint Research Centre of States and countries are shown to scale, except for Alaska.

Environment Michigan, a 501(c)(3) research and policy center, argues that the extreme increase in rainfall lately is caused by Global Warming, something that would be mitigated by burning less fossil fuels.

Solar power, apart from providing power at specific installations, depends on transmission. ITC Holdings, based in Novi, is the nation’s largest independent electricity transmission company. Its subsidiary, ITCTransmission, owns, operates and maintains about 2,800 circuit miles of transmission lines in southeast Michigan.

ITC Transmission’s Michigan Thumb Loop project, a high-voltage electric transmission line installation, is expected to be completed in 2015. The 140 miles of electric transmission lines and four new substations will serve as a backbone to connect sources of power production, such as wind turbines and solar arrays, to the electric grid.

Getting in on the ground floor for solar may make the best business sense.

Smaller business options
Where do small businesses fit in? Michael Ayoub is weighing the costs of being an earlier adopter to solar power. Ayoub owns three business: a virtual office and executive office leasing company, a mortgage company and a thriving Dunkin’ Donuts/Baskin Robbins in Madison Heights.

I thought about putting it on the roof of an office building I own in Clinton Township, but I’m thinking that the costs will become lower in the future, he explains. Also, will I keep the building long enough to recover the costs?

Going solar intrigues the environmentally conscious Ayoub. He recently purchased a second Prius and said of solar power, It’s sustainable and it’s better for nature; I like these things. And they are going to become more important as time goes on.

I look at it periodically and there are some challenges as well as rewards, he said. I would like to get in at the right time.

Ayoub said it’s not the same here in Michigan as it is, say, in California. He says he heard about people putting solar panels on large parcels of land and others buying into it, sort of like a solar farm. It produces energy that businesses can use as credits.

It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing prospect, experts say. Just as you don’t have to run your business solely on gas or diesel, oil or coal, you don’t have to attempt a 100 percent solar powered workplace, yet. As Utopian as that may sound, in today’s climate, incremental steps may prove more cost-effective.

Think about all the solar powered traffic signs or parking meters you’ve seen. Those cut consumption dramatically. For years, residential homes and small businesses have augmented their nighttime lighting with rechargeable lamps that soak in the day’s rays and shine brightly well into the wee hours, repeating the cycle by recharging themselves again beginning at dawn.

At the Arbor Brewing Company, the wee hours usually mean about 1 a.m.

Last year, the Ann Arbor company had solar panels installed. Everything ran perfectly, seamlessly and the conversion had no impact on day-to-day operations.

I figured that maybe our lights would be dimmer or the beer would taste different, but so far, no change. I don’t see any difference at all. Our brewery functions the way all breweries function, said Malley Cahoon, floor manager.

According to Cliff Reese, Business leader of SSOE Group a global engineering, procurement, and construction management firm the biggest challenge to incorporating more sustainable building practices is the current low cost of natural gas. It means that kilowatt prices remain low, so any Building-Integrated-Photovoltaic (BIPV) investments have a longer-term payback structure.

Speaking on PBS, David Biello associate editor Scientific American said burning natural gas is the cheapest way to produce electricity right now

Solar is growing by leaps and bounds … it will become more and more of our energy supply. That said, it’s not going to displace everything.

Still, for newly constructed buildings, as solar power moves toward BIPV materials, it is generally understood that this allows for “net-zero” buildings, said Reese. These could not only generate all of their own energy needs, but also back-feed excess energy into the grid for credit, the process known as net metering.

New kid on the block
Scott Walker has handled many a solar set up. About 60 different installations, from California to New York, but the majority in Michigan, he says.

Walker is the Renewable Energy Division Manager for J. Ranck Electric in Mt. Pleasant.

Everybody has their reasons for wanting to go forward with solar, he explains. Some clients just want to do something good for the environment, others want to impact their utility bills, others, a combination of both, he explains.

Solar systems are green and offer good publicity, says Scott Walker of J. Ranck Electric.

But those aren’t the only reasons, continues Walker, Some customers think it’s just the neatest thing they’ve ever seen. And, of course, they like the publicity that goes along with having solar systems.

It’s sort of like being the first one on the block.

More often than not, the leading factor or at least the one that shoots down implementing a solar strategy is the initial expense.

Everyone wants to save every penny they can and it’s harder for people to let go of that up-front cost. They’re looking 10 years down the road and they have to decide for themselves if it’s worth it or not, Walker reports.

All of the J. Ranck panels they install are made in the United States. And, everybody we’ve spoken to afterward is pleased; it’s everything they expected and more, Walker says.

Walker sees the future of solar continuing to brighten. For one thing, the equipment costs have leveled out. Labor is what it is, but I see the cost of electricity only going up. I see solar becoming more and more popular.

Renewable energy is here to stay. I think it’s a good market, Walker concludes.