Issues of the Environment: Assessing the challenges of building out solar energy infrastructure in Washtenaw County – WEMU

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  • Renewable energy doesn’t contribute to climate change because it does not release greenhouse gasses. Both Washtenaw County and Ann Arbor have set the goal of powering the entire community with 100% renewable energy by the year 2030. According to MLive, currently renewable energy makes up 15% of Michigan’s power portfolio. Much more generation must be constructed to reach the state’s goal of using 50% renewable sources by 2030 and being 100% carbon-free by 2040.
  • But, does solar farming help or hurt farmland preservation? Of course, land being used for panels can’t produce the same crops as tilled land, but it doesn’t require toxic pesticides or fertilizers. In the future, sheep might be able to graze under the panels on some farms. Solar farms also aren’t being developed into new industrial properties or subdivisions, and they provide tax revenue. 
  • One of the biggest objections to the solar farms is that they are ugly, or at least uglier than rolling agricultural fields. Rural homeowners near them worry about property values. What, if any, compensation affected homeowners should receive is still up in the air. 


David Fair: Ann Arbor, Washtenaw County and the state of Michigan are all working to become carbon neutral and in rather quick fashion. If those efforts are to succeed, much more of our energy generation is going to have to come from renewable sources, like solar energy. But there are hurdles to overcome. I’m David Fair, and welcome to 89 one WEMU’s Issues of the Environment. Ann Arbor is looking to become carbon neutral by 2030, Washtenaw County by 2035 and the state of Michigan by 2040. Now, the state has set a goal of having 50% of its power portfolio made up of renewable sources by the year 2030. Right now, it’s about 15%. So, where to put solar and wind farms and how to get buy in in those areas–that’s all part of the challenge. Our guest today is steeped in the work of exploring all of these issues. Madeleine Krol is a clean energy land use specialist at the Graham Sustainability Institute’s Center for Empowering Communities at the University of Michigan. Thank you, Madeleine, for making time for us today. I appreciate it.

Madeleine Krol: David, thank you. I’m happy to be here.

David Fair: In order for solar energy to play a far more significant role, it’s going to require a great deal of infrastructure. Because of the space required, much of that infrastructure will have to be located in rural areas of the county and state. First off, is it feasible to create a utility scale solar energy grid in Michigan?

Madeleine Krol: Certainly. We’re seeing this major shift in how we’re producing our energy. And older power plants are nearing their end of life, and the utilities are looking into what they can bring onto the grid. And lots of that is solar, which is due to the major drop of cost of solar in the past ten, 15 years. And that is why there’s so much attention on solar at the moment. And solar certainly plays an important role, along, like, other energy sources to come up with a diverse energy mix for Michigan’s energy future.

David Fair: So, when we say “solar farm,” that creates a very particular mental image–vast fields of large solar panels. Not only are some concerned about the aesthetic of that, but also about how it could impact the agricultural community and actual farming operations. From your vantage point, is that part of the equation a legitimate concern?

Madeleine Krol: Most definitely. We are working with rural communities. Because of the scale and because of the economies of scale of these large projects, many of these projects are in rural areas where there are active farming communities. And solar, certainly, like any other energy source, has impacts good and negative. And for solar, the conversations that we have been having with townships and communities all across Michigan, but also particularly in Washtenaw County, conversations that we’re having there, are wondering how are these hundreds and sometimes few thousand acres of solar projects affecting not just the view shed, but also farm livelihoods? For example, what happens to tenant farmers who are leasing their land, often for much cheaper than what a solar developer would pay for that same land to put a solar project on it? So, those are some of the questions that we are asking and looking into and having a research project on. There are other impacts on, like, wet life habitat. What we spend a lot of time talking about when we’re in these rural communities is the impact of the farming communities or the people that live there, and it really is very unique from township to township in how far either solar is a competition to agriculture or in how far solar can be the retirement plan for a farmer who maybe does not have someone to pass their farm down to, or leases out a couple of less productive acres for solar. And that, basically, has been the lease income from the solar project as a supplement to their farming operations and can reinvest that money back into the farming business. We hear stories all across the board.

David Fair: WEMU’s Issues of the environment conversation with Madeleine Krol continues. She is a clean energy land use specialist at the Graham Sustainability Institute’s Center for Empowering Communities at the University of Michigan. The Michigan Legislature passed a law allowing solar developers planning to build large-scale solar farms to go directly to the state for permitting. That removes the ability of local councils, boards, and commissions from making decisions about what they think is best for their particular community. There’s certainly been some pushback on the new law. How much might that pushback hold up the process of building out Michigan’s solar infrastructure?

Madeleine Krol: That is a great question, and I think there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment. A lot of local governments are kind of waiting and holding out to see, as the Michigan Public Service Commission, who is now charged with some authority to permit some projects under certain conditions, are planning to apply this law. But also there is a ballot initiative with the intent of repealing this law. So, there’s a lot of question marks in the air at the moment as to how things are going to unfold throughout the rest of the year. And it’s a difficult time to plan and to kind of look forward to.

David Fair: But, nonetheless, major solar farm projects are in the pipeline. They are being planned throughout the state of Michigan. Do you have a sense of how many are being worked on at the moment?

Madeleine Krol: Yes. Every solar project would have to apply for several types of permits, and one of them being a process or an application to basically see how much it costs to connect the project to the grid. That is a process that takes several years. But there is a Midcontinent Systems operator, MISO or MISO queue, I don’t like throwing around abbreviations, but that one’s an important one, where you can basically look into how many projects are currently being studied by developers. I think it’s around 90 projects that are being in the pipeline. I would need to double check. I think it’s around 90, but not all of those are necessarily getting built. And they’re in conversations with the communities that we are working with. We have heard that some developers are very much interested in not waiting until November, until there is more clear about the law. They’re very willing to work with the local government and kind of find something that works for both parties in developing solar projects.

David Fair: Once again, this is 89 one WEMU, and we’re talking with U of M clean energy land use specialist Madeleine Krol. And, Madeleine, the City of Ann Arbor is considering adding its name to the list of communities in Michigan that move to a municipally-owned and operated utility. It will require greater investment in rooftop solar, neighborhood solar, and include an ongoing relationship with DTE Energy as it builds out its renewable infrastructure. The idea is greater reliability at more affordable rates. When it comes to grid security, do we have the technology right now to reliably provide large-scale renewable power generation to meet those local and state goals?

Madeleine Krol: Yes. Right now, at the moment, the energy mix where our energy is coming from is largely diverse. And solar is a part of it. Wind is a part of it. Coal and gas–all of that is coming together. In the longer-term future when we’re building out more and more renewables, the state is calling for energy storage to facilitate when these intermittent power resources, such as wind and solar, are serving the grid. So, more and more solar will require battery storage. And, at the moment, we don’t have lots of energy storage. There’s few very small projects kind of on the small scale, but there’s also lots of interest into developing large-scale utility scale batteries, basically, that are storing wind or solar energy when it’s generated and then pushing it into the grid, for example, for solar in the evening, and just to overall flatten the generation and demand.

David Fair: So, when you take into consideration kind of all that we’ve talked about–the land use issues, the technology issues, the economic issues that remain to be determine– what are the biggest barriers moving forward to meet Michigan’s renewable energy goals?

Madeleine Krol: I think one issue that will be looked at this year in particular, and something that I work on most, is the sighting of large-scale infrastructure and doing so in a way where it is beneficial to the local host community on their terms and providing some flexibility to local governments in being part of that. And our work, overall, is really trying to align the energy transition in the interest of local communities with the energy transition.

David Fair: And finally, Madeleine, you mentioned that you have been out and meeting with and talking with and listening to members of the Washtenaw County community about these various issues. What is your biggest takeaway from the feedback that you’re being given at the moment?

Madeleine Krol: In rural communities, generally, what we’re hearing, and I’ve mentioned that briefly earlier, is just thinking through and having conversations about how is this going to affect our farm livelihoods in this particular area, how is it affecting viewshed and just kind of providing science-based information, like what of the rumors around solar are true? What is a misconception? And then, in Washtenaw County in particular, is certainly the concern that next to residential development pressures on land in Washtenaw County, solar provides an additional pressure on land. And there are lots of folks out there who are wondering in how far their agricultural communities are going to be changing, or if they’re going to be changing, not only from residential development pressures, but also solar. And that is such a large land use.

David Fair: I’d like to thank you for taking time to share your insights with us today, Madeleine. I’m most grateful.

Madeleine Krol: Thank you very much, David, for having me.

David Fair: That is Madeleine Krol. She is clean energy land use specialist at the Graham Sustainability Institute Center for Empowering Communities at the University of Michigan. She’s been our guest on Issues of the environment. For more information on today’s discussion, pay a visit to our website at Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I’m David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM, Ypsilanti.

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