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FAQ: Clean Energy

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Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

FAQ: Clean Energy

Below are a series of frequently asked questions about Clean Energy in Michigan. The answers were compiled by experts at the University of Michigan.

  • The Council on Climate Solutions acts in an advisory capacity to the Governor and EGLE in formulating and overseeing the implementation of the MI Healthy Climate Plan, Michigan's action plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The Council has five workgroups that have assembled recommendations for reaching Michigan's carbon neutrality goals, some of which advocate the use of clean energy.

  • In terms of utility-scale renewable energy development, there are currently 2,214 MW deployed. This does not include the individual-scale systems that also project electricity, just at smaller amounts likely for on-site use. As of now, the majority of this utility-scale production is from wind energy projects, producing 2,139 MW from projects throughout the state. While there is currently far less utility-scale solar, there is a 239 MW project under construction in Shiawassee County that will more than triple the amount of solar development that the state currently has. In addition, there are many utility-scale wind and solar projects in the queue and many smaller scale projects being constructed.

  • As we move away from dependence on fossil fuel energy production and the need and demand for alternative energy sources continues to grow, wind and solar development will likely play a key part in this transition and expand in Michigan. Technological advances are making wind turbines and solar panels more efficient and more cost-effective across the state. There are currently a number of utility-scale wind and solar energy projects being constructed and in the development queue, along with growing construction of small-scale systems throughout the state.

    In addition to growing demand for renewable energy from customers and businesses in Michigan, the state has many goals and policies in place that wind and solar energy development will serve a large part in reaching. These include the Renewable Portfolio Standard policy, Michigan's commitments through the U.S. Climate Alliance, and the state's goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. There are also a number of cities in the state that have made commitments to climate action or energy goals, including Grand Rapids and Ann Arbor.

  • There are often concerns about the effects of renewable energy developments on wildlife. For both wind and solar projects, the most immediate impact in the disruption and displacement of habitats during construction of the projects.

    For wind turbines specifically, there is often concern of harm to bird and bat populations. While turbines can present obstacles to birds and bats, many organizations like the National Audubon Society support property sited wind turbines as a way to combat climate change, which poses an even greater threat to these species than the turbines themselves. There are resources and recommendations on best practices for siting, including those from the American Wind Wildlife Institute and tools like that from the Nature Conservancy that can map areas of low potential conflict with species.

    When examining impacts to wildlife from solar development, one consideration is the impact of the required fences around the development. The National Electric Code requires developers to install a 6-7 foot fence around solar energy projects, which may impede movement of large wildlife species.

  • Despite some of the best wind resources in the state being over the Great Lakes, Michigan does not currently have any off-shore wind projects. The primary challenge of placing wind development offshore is the cost - it is more expensive for construction and maintenance than onshore development, and there is additional regulation required for offshore projects. However, as technology improves the cost is declining and we are seeing more offshore projects being developed. The first offshore wind development in the U.S. came online in 2016 near Block Island, Rhode Island, and there is more planned along the East Coast.

    An additional challenge for offshore wind development in Michigan is that the Great Lakes are freshwater lakes that are prone to freezing. This presents additional obstacles that are not faced by projects along the ocean coasts. There is currently an offshore wind project being planned in Lake Erie off the coast of Cleveland, with the fitting name of Icebreaker Wind Power Project.

  • Utility-scale wind turbines (those that are part of large wind development projects) have gotten taller as technology has advanced, which allows access to steadier wind speeds and more efficient energy generation. Most of the existing wind turbines in Michigan were built between 2010 and 2018, and are just under 500 feet tall. Turbines that were constructed earlier than 2010 tend to be about 325-400 feet tall, and newer wind turbines tend to be taller than 500 feet tall.

  • Renewable energy developments typically take up more land than conventional power plants to produce the same amount of electricity, when only considering the footprint of the power plant itself and not the mining functions for coal and natural gas-fired electricity. For example, a 1,000 MW conventional power plant might take up 100 acres. A 1,000 MW solar energy development would typically require 5,000 to 7,000 acres, and 1,000 MW of wind energy development could span across 100,000 acres (although in that case, only 500 of those 100,000 acres would actually be taken up with turbines, equipment, and associated access roads).

  • A 2019 report from the non-profit E2 found that over 10,000 Michigan residents are employed in the wind and solar industry statewide. The majority of these jobs are in manufacturing and construction, which aren't necessarily in the same communities which host wind or solar projects. For wind energy projects in Michigan, they tend to provide between 7 and 11 long-term operation and maintenance jobs per 100 MW in or around the community that the wind project is in. There is less readily available information on solar employment, but the Shiawassee County project currently under construction anticipates a similar trend of hundreds of construction jobs but fewer (4-6) long-term jobs based in or near the county.

  • A common concern about renewable energy projects is the impacts to human health. For both wind and solar developments, noise is often a primary concern from either the wind turbine blades or the inverters for a solar array - both of which do emit sound. There is not much research on the effects of solar project noise specifically, but there are many studies on the effects of wind development noise, most of which find that there are not direct impacts on human health from wind turbines. However, there is research happening on the indirect impacts of wind turbines, specifically if turbines cause stress or annoyance to surrounding residents that in turn can lead to other health problems.

    Specific to wind energy, there is also concern around shadow flicker from turbines. There is evidence that flicker can negatively affect those with epilepsy, although occurrences are rare and newer turbines have the ability to move at a slower rate which lessens the impact of shadow flicker. In addition, turbines can be programmed to be shut off during the time that flicker might affect the home of someone with epilepsy.

  • There are typically two things that can happen when a renewable energy project reaches the end of its contracted life. One is repowering, where certain parts of equipment or the structures themselves are replaced with upgraded equipment. The other is decommissioning, which involves fully removing the panels or turbines, foundations, structures, fencing, and other associated equipment. This also involves restoration of the site and disturbed areas, which may include grading and reseeding. This process applies to both wind and solar energy projects. For more information on the process for solar, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently published a study that details the options and costs associated with the end-of-life of solar facilities.

    Is it common for communities to require developers submit a decommissioning plan for approval at the time of site plan approval. These plans can include an outline of the life of the project, the estimated costs for decommissioning, and details of the planned procedures for removing the equipment and restoring the site. It is also common that communities utilize financial mechanisms, such as financial guarantees or surety bonds, to ensure that the project is properly decommissioned.

  • The primary difference between small-scale and utility-scale renewable energy projects is the capacity of energy the system can produce. Utility-scale systems are larger commercial systems that generate electricity to be distributed for off-site use through the grid or exported to the wholesale market. Small-scale, or accessory-scale, systems often provide on-site electricity to a structure, like a residence or commercial building.

    Naturally, another primary difference associated with capacity is the size of the systems. Utility wind turbines are generally 400-500 feet tall, while small-scale on-site turbines tend to be around 40-50 feet tall. Utility-scale solar projects tend to be the primary use on a site, while smaller-scale systems can be rooftop-mounted to a building or take up a smaller amount of land on-site.

    Utility-scale systems and small-scale systems can differ by how they are owned, as well. Utility-scale systems are typically commercially owned, and it is common for the developers of these systems to enter into lease agreements with landowners to place the project on their land. Small-scale systems are typically owned by the owner of the property that the system is on.

  • It is possible to plant crops under wind turbines or solar panels, although there are considerations to take into account depending on what is intended to be planted.

    While wind development projects require large amounts of land, the individual turbines themselves only take up as little as 1/2 acre of land, leaving much of the land undisturbed. This allows farmers to plant crops and continue farm operations on the majority of their land without issue. The turbines will not limit sunlight for the crops and wind developers can work around irrigation systems to ensure that they do not impede irrigation for crops.

    For solar energy developments, there is more to take into consideration in terms of planting under solar arrays. Solar panels utilize more of the land that they cover than turbines and are sometimes low to the ground which raises questions about what can be planted underneath, as taller plants or ones that require mechanical harvesting may not be feasible. Panels can be raised to mitigate some of this issue and allow a wider variety of plants under the panels. It is an increasingly common practice to plant native vegetation or pollinator-friendly species under solar arrays, which has environmental benefits. An emerging area of research is in agrivoltaics, focused on the feasibility of co-location of solar development and agriculture on the same piece of land. There are many factors of consideration in this, including the challenge of using farm equipment around the structures.

  • There are a number of associated benefits with renewable energy projects that should be considered by communities. In addition to individual landowners that may benefit from personal payments related to the projects, a key community-wide benefit is the economic benefit of added tax revenue from renewable energy development. Both utility-scale wind and solar projects are taxed as personal property and since they are relatively large investments, this can mean there are significant tax revenues associated with the developments. Because energy projects in the state are taxed as industrial personal property, the taxable value typically declines over time, so communities will see the largest tax benefit in the first few years of the project operation. This is illustrated on the state's current wind energy multiplier table.

    In the vein of economic benefits, communities may also benefit from increased economic activity during construction of the development. This may include added jobs for community members in the construction process, but also could mean increased activity for local businesses in the hospitality sector as there is an influx of people during the construction of the project. It should be noted that these benefits may only be short-term during the time that the project is being constructed.

    Renewable energy developments can also bring local environmental benefits to the community that hosts the project. Wind or solar developments in a community can help to meet the energy needs of the community through clean sources compared to traditional fossil fuel-dependent energy production. In addition, if a community has goals related to climate action or resiliency, having renewable energy development within their jurisdiction is a key factor in contributing to these goals.

  • The primary way that renewable energy developments affect individual local pocketbooks is through landowner payments. Typically, renewable project developers will pay landowners who allow them to place the wind turbines, solar arrays, or associated equipment on their property. In addition, it is becoming more common that developers may also make payments to landowners surrounding the development, even if no equipment is directly on their property - these are often referred to as friendly neighbor agreements. There are also some situations where more community members receive payments than just those that host projects or are adjacent to projects, but these payments are usually smaller than to those directly involved.

    Landowner payments allow property owners who host renewable energy projects to receive supplementary income, which can be particularly helpful to farmers and allow them reinvest it into their property and equipment or to help reduce the risks of farm operation.

  • Utility-scale solar (>2MW) is a relatively new land use in Michigan that involves many types of electrical components--from solar panels to inverters to the racking system on which solar panels are mounted--which equates to a lot of questions in how a solar farm should be taxed. The State Tax Commission put out guidance to local assessors in December 2021 after an ad hoc committee submitted a report to the STC on the issue in September 2021. The value of the equipment is taxed as industrial personal property and its taxable value tends to decrease over time. Some "eligible distressed areas," most of them cities, may be able to offer a new personal property exemption for solar development, though to date (June 2022), only three solar projects have received this exemption.

  • There are a number of potential environmental and health impacts of large-scale solar panels currently being studied. A common concern is the potential for leaching of panel components that might impact water quality. PFAS contamination in particular is commonly a concern raised around leaching, although PFAS is not typically used in solar panels and studies have not shown PFAS contamination or any related issues in panels. Other potential risks include pollution from manufacturing, fire risks, breakage risks, and improper disposal of modules.

    The North Carolina State University's Clean Energy Technology Center recently conducted a review of the latest research on many of these concerns to create a comprehensive guide on the safety of utility-scale solar. Regarding the potential for breakages and leaching, the study found that because the hazardous components of solar panels are enclosed within ethylene-vinyl acetate (the plastic material that prevents car windshields from shattering), solar panels are highly resistant to most weather events and chemical leaching from a cracked solar panel is unlikely. Additionally, past laboratory testing by the EPA has indicated that even when this protective enclosure is purposely broken, most modern solar panels do not leach toxic materials at a level that would classify them as hazardous waste.

    There is still much research being conducted on these potential risks and impacts. Task 12 is an international research group, part of the Photovoltaic Powers System Programme (PVPS) at the International Energy Agency (IEA), focused on questions of these environmental health impacts. The group recently published two studies that project the impacts of a worst-case scenario solar panel breakage and an improper disposal of a decommissioned module in order to better understand overall health concerns. Their projections indicate that even in the worst potential panel breakage, the air, soil and groundwater that surround a broken module would still meet the United States Environmental Protection Agency's safety standards, and even solar panels disposed of in the most improperly managed landfills should not present any cancerous or non-cancerous health risks to neighboring populations.

  • Specialized solar panel recycling facilities can recover the vast majority of panel material for reuse, but they are not yet prevalent in the United States. Still, most local recycling facilities are capable of handling solar panels. At these facilities, the Glass and aluminum structural materials that make up the majority of PV panels can be successfully recovered and reused. However, United States recycling plants typically discard the most expensive components of PV panels, limiting the economic viability of recycling for panel owners. Recycling the other materials also depends on the type of panel. For cadmium telluride (CdTe) PV modules, the tellurium is valuable and the cadmium is toxic, so they are always recycled. For crystalline-silicon (c-Si) PV modules, the silicon has little value, so they are not often recycled.

    There are no federal standards on end-of-life practices for solar panels, and policies range across states and localities, which is a deterrent to the expansion of recycling programs in the United States. While countries across Europe see solar recycling rates of up to 95 percent, it has been estimated that less than 10 percent of United States solar panels are being recycled after decommissioning. Recent regulations in California and Washington have made it illegal to dispose of solar modules in landfills in order to prompt better end-of-life practices for solar technologies, and research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory indicates that more states may soon follow their lead. These changes have environmental and economic benefits, as a strong United States solar recycling industry would limit demand for newly-mined materials, create jobs, and reduce dependence on foreign imports for panel components.

  • Similar to how any structure affects the area immediately surrounding it, solar photovoltaic panels can affect the climate of the area directly beneath the module or right next to it. The structure can trap heat below it and prevent evaporation from the soil, which in turn can increase the temperature near the panel (typically by less than 1 degree) and can increase the humidity below the panel.

    This microclimate below the panel can be helpful for growing plants in some areas and can lend itself to the planting of environmentally beneficial vegetation under solar arrays, such as pollinator-friendly or native vegetation. There is also a growing field of research focused on the co-location of agricultural production and photovoltaics, known as agrivoltaics.

    Solar thermal panels, a much less common type of solar panel can have a much greater effect on the climate.

  • The Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association has a list of solar installers, some of which may also install small grid-scale systems.

  • The most common, and recommended, approach is to distinguish between accessory- and principal-use solar rather than the size (MW or acreage) of the installation. For accessory systems, typically following the basic regulations (height, setback, etc.) of accessory buildings in the district in which they are situated allows these solar installations to scale whether they are in residential districts or commercial/industrial districts.

  • The lifespan of a solar development is tied to both the lifespan of the equipment, and/or the lease agreement/contract with the landowner if the solar developer does not own the land. The typical timeline of a project currently is 25-30 years. At the end of this period, agreements/contracts may allow for extensions, and equipment can be updated or components replaced to continue the life of the project.

  • Much of the concern about solar panels on agricultural land is related to soil disturbance and compaction. The impacts of a solar energy project on soil disturbance/compaction depends on the layout of the project and what is required by the local government in terms of stormwater and/or screening. Minimizing soil disturbance of the project will have the least impact, which means not requiring retention/detention basins or swales for stormwater, and not requiring berms as a means of screening.

    Requiring maintenance of existing field tile, as is required by the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development (MDARD) for solar development on land enrolled in PA 116, is another way to avoid regrading of the soil. Planting a cover crop under and around the panels further helps to reduce loss of topsoil on agricultural land. Another way to protect agricultural soils is to minimize the size and number of access roads in the development, which in turn helps to minimize long-term compaction of soil.

  • While wind turbines are almost always placed in rural environments, solar energy can fit into urban or suburban settings. Rooftop panels and small ground-mount systems offer opportunities to place solar on urban or suburban properties, and typically the power produced is used to provide on-site electricity.

    But there are instances of urban solar projects where the power is sold directly to the grid. One way that larger solar energy systems can fit into urban areas is with solar carports. This is a way to utilize already developed land for solar energy production, while also offering the benefit of shading parked cars. Michigan State University has a solar carport project that covers 5,000 parking spots on campus. Additionally, land that is of marginal quality can be ideal sites for solar energy production. Marginal quality land can include brownfield sites, former industrial land, landfills, and other sites that are not ideal for development. Solar panels can be developed and installed so that they don't penetrate the ground and don't require as much remediation on sites as other kinds of development do. In this way, they offer an economic development opportunity for land that is compromised or has other developmental challenges.

  • Turbines are not significantly different from other obstacles for crop-dusters; they require navigation around them, but can typically be accommodated with proper siting practices. Wind developers typically work with landowners to ensure that they can continue all farm operations, and it can be negotiated into lease agreements if turbine placement will cause crop-dusting costs to increase.

    Perhaps of greater concern than turbines for crop-dusting practices are the meteorological evaluation towers (METs) that are put up to evaluate wind speeds prior to a wind farm being constructed. These structures do not have any turbine blades, but are more slender (i.e. harder to see) and are held in place with guy wires, which can pose additional hazards and bigger risk to crop-dusting pilots. The FAA recommends that METs under 200 feet are lighted and marked so that they can be more easily noticed.

  • EGLE provides funding opportunities and resources to help agriculture, small businesses, and manufacturers become more energy efficient and transition to cleaner, greener energy sources, vehicles, and fuels.

  • Check out our Catalyst Communities initiative and webinar series websites to learn ways you can foster climate resiliency in your community.