Sunday, December 26, 2010

Solar Can be Part of the Mix - But the Solution Lies Elsewhere

Last year at this time Michigan's Traverse City Light and Power was pushing hard to build a $30 million wood-burning biomass energy plant inside the city limits.

The effort was dead by June, done in by strong local opposition stoked in part by the utility's inability to effectively sell the idea to a doubting public and satisfactorily answer basic, nagging questions about sustainability, health issues and even where the plant would be located.

Now, there's a new project under way, but the goal and the price tag are a lot more attainable: Spending $500,000 to build a 50-kilowatt solar energy generation system at Light and Power's Hastings Street facility.

Unfortunately, while the price tag and impact are a lot less than the biomass plant, so is the expected return.

While the city-owned utility had hoped to build two or even three biomass plants and produce as much as 20 percent of the base load power the utility needs, the impact of solar will be much, much less.

The system, which is to include up to 120 solar panels, will generate a measly half-percent of Light and Power's overall energy needs.

That's hardly worth the effort and it certainly isn't cost effective. In fact, the utility plans to reinstate its old "green-rate" surcharge on electric bills, which is how Light and Power helped subsidize its wind turbine generator along M-72 west of Traverse City, to help underwrite the solar project.

While the turbine was an important step toward renewable, no-impact power generation — it was the first public utility-owned and operated turbine in the state — its power production was, and still is, minimal.

The "green rate" helped offset the cost of building and maintaining the turbine.

It could be kindly said the project fell into the "it's the thought that counts" category.

But the reality is that Light & Power, and all other Michigan utilities, are well past that, or should be.

Under a state mandate, utilities are going to have to get at least 10 percent of their power from renewably sources by 2020, and every step in that direction, even one half of one percent, will help.

The folks at Light and Power will meet that mandate, but their options — as underscored during the heated debate over biomass — are extremely limited.

Light and Power already buys renewable power from a wind farm in Missaukee County and has lined up landfill gas purchases.

Pretty soon now, officials say, the utility will produce more than 10 percent of its power from renewable sources. But none of those power sources will be as cost-effective as the coal-fired plants Light & Power now relies on for most of its electricity.

So what's next? Given the nature of solar in northern Michigan, probably not much in that direction. Light and Power Director Ed Ness said the utility estimates solar cells will generate electricity 15 to 18 percent of the time, factoring in night hours and cloudy days, particularly in typically overcast winter months.

Wind power seems to have more promise, but likely also more opposition.

A proposal for more than 100 turbines in Benzie and Manistee counties has run into stiff initial opposition, much of it focused on the size of the proposed windmills — as much as 500 feet high at the tip of a blade.

Tests have also shown that some of the most powerful and consistent winds in the Midwest — enough, researchers said, to produce a significant percentage of the state's electric needs — can be found a few miles out on Lake Michigan; it's expected someone will soon propose an offshore wind farm there.

Light and Power is right to seek options but is also right to put solar in its place.

This is simply not, as much as we'd like it to be, prime solar territory.

It's going to be harder than that. But it has to be done.


1 comment:

Philip Jones said...

$10/watt seems really high for a PV system these days. Two questions come to mind:
1) Why so high a capital cost?
2) Why solar PV in Michigan, where there is so little sunshine?