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Consumers Energy plans large-scale solar buy in Calhoun County

BY Sunday, September 08, 2019 01:46pm

Consumers Energy announced plans Thursday to purchase a majority of the output from a large-scale solar project in Calhoun County, among the first deals under the utility’s shift to renewable energy.

For 20 years, Consumers will purchase 100 megawatts from River Fork Solar in Sheridan Township near Albion, about two-thirds of the total project that’s sited on 1,800 acres. The deal is subject to approval by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

The project owner, Ranger Power, is reportedly investing $150 million in River Fork. The New York City-based company also has proposed similar large-scale project in Shiawassee County.

“We are excited to enter into this major agreement with Consumers Energy and we are proud to play a part in providing clean, renewable energy to customers across Michigan,” Ranger Power President Paul Harris said in a statement.

The deal comes amid Michigan’s ongoing shift to clean energy, which is represented in Consumers’ and DTE Energy’s long-term energy plans. On Thursday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer recognized this shift in a proclamation declaring Sept. 23-27 in Michigan as “Clean Energy Week.” Whitmer notes that Michigan’s installed solar capacity has doubled in the last two years.

Consumers plans to add 5,000 MW of solar to its portfolio by 2030, and 6,000 MW by 2040. The utility plans half of that to be company-owned with the other half to be purchased from independent developers under competitive bids, similar to the River Fork deal.

At an event in Grand Rapids last week, Consumers CEO Patti Poppe said solar — along with energy efficiency programs — will be a central component to the utility’s long-term plan, citing stranded cost risks associated with new natural gas plants and the benefit of building solar at a modular scale. Under its plan, Consumers is calling for no new fossil fuel generation in the next 20 years.

Poppe also said that utility-scale projects are more economical to build compared to customer-owned rooftop solar projects. While she said customers are still welcome to add solar panels to their properties, the cost for the utility to buy back their excess power sent to the grid is “three times more expensive” than large-scale projects.

“What we have learned is that the cost for solar has dropped dramatically,” Poppe said. “At utility scale, we’re going to do an annual auction because we want the lowest cost, cleanest energy to serve the people of Michigan. For rooftop solar, the price does not compete.”

The River Fork project is expected to create 269 jobs during construction and spend roughly $16 million in construction costs in Calhoun County, according to a study by Anderson Economic Group.

According to a spokesperson for Consumers Energy, the utility will submit a request for approval to the MPSC within a week of the announcement. As well, Ranger Power expects to secure final local approvals for the River Fork project over the next few weeks.

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