Have you ever visited a restaurant that markets itself as “farm-to-table?” This just means the restaurant sources its ingredients, including eggs, meats and seasonal produce, from local farms. It’s a big selling point as it means your food is fresh and your purchase supports jobs in and around the community.
As part of our Clean Energy Plan, we’re taking the farm-to-table concept and applying it to solar energy. With the expansion of our renewable energy programs, our customers can expect to receive more clean energy generated on solar farms right here in Michigan.
Why solar energy? There are several benefits to using energy generated on solar panel farms.
In comparison to fossil fuels, clean energy options like solar are better for the planet. Solar energy leads to reduced carbon emissions and reduced water usage, which is exceptionally important in Michigan. We’re protective of our Great Lakes and the rivers that feed in and out of them as a water source. We want to keep them full and healthy.
Solar is increasingly cost competitive with other fuel sources, which is why it is a key component of our Clean Energy Plan. There is a misconception that renewables are more expensive than coal since it costs less to buy and burn coal than it does to generate and use solar energy. But what many people forget are the hidden costs of coal, including labor, maintenance and the investment-based sunk costs that come with operating a coal plant. The operations and maintenance of solar is much lower, which means costs from customers will remain lower over the lifespan of the generating facility.
In fact, with the high operating costs of coal plants, a new coal plant today would come out to 2-5 times the cost of the same capacity from solar energy sources.
This is a fancy way of saying electricity costs peak in the summer when most people are cranking the AC, and summer is conveniently the time of year when solar is most plentiful. Because we need solar energy most when it’s readily available, cost is overall lower in comparison to other renewable energy sources.
We can start small and add solar farms and panels gradually, giving us flexibility to respond to emerging needs, adapt to changing conditions and embrace new technologies. This flexibility is key, and wouldn’t exist if we instead built a huge, new coal or natural gas power plant with high overhead and startup costs.
Another benefit of solar energy is it’s not permanent like a new power facility, and the property can easily be returned to its original state. Solar farms are made by driving steel stakes into the ground and placing aluminum and copper panels on top. If we need to remove a solar farm, it’s as easy as digging up the stakes and recycling the steel, aluminum and copper to turn the location back into an open field.
From large-scale to hobby farmers, we’re working with agricultural partners to make the idea of farm-to-table energy more than just an analogy. Land for solar should be flat and already cleared, as preserving Michigan’s beauty includes leaving existing forests intact.
Ideal project sites for utility-scale solar power plants are about 500 to 900 acres and are often comprised of multiple, neighboring landowners. Solar power plants can provide income for participating landowners from the sale of property or ongoing easement agreements.
Our Clean Energy Plan is a 20-year strategic road map to meeting the state’s energy needs while protecting the environment. We want to eliminate coal and dramatically boost renewable energy to achieve net zero carbon emissions in our electric business by 2040. We’re also planning on net zero greenhouse gas emissions from the company’s entire natural gas production and delivery system — including customers and suppliers — by 2050.
Solar energy is a huge part of this plan and strategy over the course of the next 20 years. We consider this moment a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for solar. Why?
Awareness of climate change has ramped globally and we can be a leader in Michigan and the nation in addressing it. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, 70% of Michiganders believe global warming is happening. And we are well positioned to retire our aging coal plants as soon as 2025 and replace them with new, cleaner resources.
We plan to bring 1,100 megawatts of solar capacity online by 2024 — enough to serve about 425,000 residents. By 2040, we want around 8,000 megawatts of solar power added to Michigan’s energy system. To achieve this, we expect to develop between 50 and 75 large scale solar projects across the state of Michigan, which will result in more than 60% of our electricity capacity coming from renewable sources.
We kept land requirements in mind when building out our Clean Energy Plan and concluded we will need around 60,000 acres to meet Michigan’s energy needs. To put this in perspective, Michigan’s total land area is around 37 million acres. Of those 37 million acres, around 10 million is farmland, meaning we need just 2% of our state’s total farmland.
We’re scouting potential locations such as farm fields — especially those less ideal for growing crops — as well as state and recreational lands. We’re also scoping out brownfield sites, which are not suitable for growing crops, but perfect for planting solar panels.
Investing in solar energy is a big deal to us. Right now, around 15% of our customers’ energy is provided from renewable sources and growing. We also recognize renewable energy is something that should be available to all—not just those who own single-family homes and can afford the initial investment for rooftop solar. That’s why our focus is on building out and transitioning our portfolio.
But that doesn’t mean options aren’t available for those who do want solar energy today. In addition to utility-scale solar using farmland, we’re also expanding our community solar options in larger cities.
For example, our Solar Gardens program acts like a community garden. But instead of purchasing a plot of land to grow vegetables, customers have the ability to buy multiple blocks of solar capacity to cover their home's use. Typically this usage equates to 10-12 blocks. This allows you to promote a cleaner energy landscape without the upfront costs and long-term maintenance of owning your own solar energy system.
As of late 2020, our Solar Gardens power plants had generated enough electricity to power 800 homes for the entire year. That’s the equivalent environmental benefit of planting 41 acres of trees in Michigan!
We’re always on the hunt for anchor gardens, or large, flat spaces in a community that can be turned into Solar Gardens to increase the capacity of this program and power homes in the area. Successful solar developments can create tax revenue for communities, providing additional support for roads, schools and other local services.
We have the regulatory approval to double our Solar Gardens now—all we need is the land and partners. A great anchor garden space has:
Michiganders can expect to see big things in the solar energy space over the next two decades. If your community or property is interested in helping bring about our solar farm-to-table revolution, we would love to hear from you.
Interested in working with Consumers Energy as an anchor tenant for our solar program? Send an email to SolarGardens@cmsenergy.com with #AnchorGarden in the subject line