HERE COMES THE SUN
Presentation outlines project, benefits for community resiliency, economic development
MARQUETTE — Richard Vander Veen, consultant for Tradewinds Energy, spoke about a proposed solar project in Marquette County at the Northern Climate Network’s monthly Climate@Noon seminar series recently in Jamrich Hall at Northern Michigan University.
Vander Veen, who helped to lead the teams that developed the Mackinaw City and Gratiot County wind projects, told attendees about Marquette County’s solar potential, as well as the multiple financial, social and environmental benefits of implementing renewable energy in a community.
Early in the talk, Vander Veen posed a question to the audience, asking: “How do we empower communities with sustainability strategies and create something called prosperity, planet and people, i.e., the triple bottom line of financial, social and ecological value for everybody in the Great Lakes Basin?”
Clean, renewable energy is one way to do this, he said, as it can reduce reliance on fossil fuels while creating “resilient communities” and economic growth.
To bring more renewable energy to Marquette County, Vander Veen said he has been working with Tradewinds Energy as a consultant to develop a large, 100-megawatt solar project in the county.
“We’ll build a substation and put it on the grid, and hopefully it will be a very valuable project for this region,” he said. “The goal here is to stabilize and cut the costs of power, cut the environmental footprint and make this a beneficial project for the community.”
Marquette County was selected as a good candidate for a solar energy project after geographic information system, or GIS, data was examined by Tradewinds Energy, Vander Veen said.
“They looked all over the country for these sites and there’s only one county in Michigan that could host a very large solar project that is not too rocky, not too much wetlands, and it’s close enough to a popular center to justify a large project,” Vander Veen said.
An area “just south of the airport” at K.I. Sawyer will be used for the project, he said.
The company has been working with local municipalities to develop the project and a lease on the land, while seeking community approval and input, he said, noting that they started by working with the county’s planning and forestry departments, then drew up the lease and brought it to the county’s legal department.
“Then finally, we took it to the county commission last year and that was approved unanimously and that was finalized and signed and recorded, and then we began working with Forsyth Township,” he said.
Forsyth Township, Vander Veen said, has been “very receptive” to the solar project.
“We’ve met with their board, with their planning commission, and we met with Gwinn schools, and we’ve had no opposition, but just unanimous support for the project,” Vander Veen said. “Which is, by the way, not necessarily the case in every community.”
An estimated $9.1 million in property taxes will be generated over the life of the project, he said.
The work and communication with local municipalities prior to, and during the implementation of such a project, is important, Vander Veen said.
“In Marquette County, we were the first to come up with this plan,” he said. “We tried to use as much experience from across the country as we could in planning the project — thinking it through, being very open about the solar zoning ordinance. We actually advocated for a very complete zoning ordinance, which was then passed by the Forsyth Township Planning Commission and the board. That sets the framework for developing a really good project.”
One attendee asked about the merits of a Marquette County solar project when solar power might be purchased from another area on the grid at a lower cost.
Vander Veen replied that while building a solar project in Marquette County may be more expensive in the short term, it will have long-term economic benefits for the area, such as job creation, investment in the area and hopefully, more affordable power.
“You buy the power less expensively now, you miss these other benefits, and so the economic vitality, together with the resiliency — say we run out of natural gas for some reason — and at least part of this is going to be picked up by solar panels,” he said. “The more distributed you are … you’re more resilient, you don’t need to have the grid. So this becomes a process of setting the platform for economic growth.”
As far as the timeline for implementation of the project, Vander Veen said, it will depend on demand for the power. They hope that local utilities, such as the Marquette Board of Light and Power and the Upper Peninsula Power Company, may be interested in purchasing the power produced by the solar project.
Cecilia Brown can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 248.