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Planners’ tour of renewable energy projects spurs further learning

A bus tour of Michigan renewable energy projects for volunteer planning commissioners and professional planners this summer planted seeds that continue to bear fruit. About 30 planners visited Assembly Solar Park in Shiawassee County and the Isabella Wind Project in Clare in a tour coordinated by the Ann Arbor-based Michigan Association of Planning (MAP) and funded by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) as part of its Catalyst Communities program.

Planners visit Assembly Solar Park in Shiawassee County.

Planners visit Assembly Solar Park in Shiawassee County. (Photo courtesy of Kathleen J. Kline-Hudson)

 

Rob Stanford, principal planner at the Livingston County Department of Planning, found the experience so informative that he was inspired to replicate it just two months later, with help from planning colleagues Kathleen Kline-Hudson and Scott Barb. The trio invited more than 25 township board members and planning commissioners from mostly rural Livingston County communities that have been contacted recently by solar companies seeking private lease agreements.

“I thought it would be a unique opportunity if we at Livingston County Planning could organize the planning commissioners and trustees from Conway, Cohoctah, and other western-tier communities to visit the facility in a similar fashion,” Stanford said. “This trip had taught me so much about this technology, I wanted to be able to share it with as many of our local community leaders as possible.”

Dr. Sarah Mills, professor and senior project manager at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute, organized the June tour. For seven years, Mills has helped communities across the state consider energy in their land use planning, zoning, and other policymaking. The tour was the final piece of a larger collaborative project Mills and her team led along with colleagues at Michigan State University Extension (MSU-E), completed in partnership with MAP and supported by EGLE.

First, MSU-E and U-M Graham staff developed “Planning & Zoning for Solar Energy Systems,” a guidebook to help Michigan communities become solar-ready by addressing solar energy systems within their policies and regulations. Next, the project team trained local government officials and planning commissioners through webinars and in-person workshops in May and June 2022. Finally, the team invited webinar and workshop attendees to the tour. The goal was to demystify renewables for those involved in their siting.

The overarching project exemplifies the ripple effect of small efforts borne out of big intentions. For EGLE, helping communities with siting considerations is a key part of achieving the MI Healthy Climate Plan goal of a prosperous carbon-neutral future for Michigan. Plans are in the works to provide targeted training in at least two other regions in Michigan that participated in the same training that inspired Stanford and his colleagues. Mills plans to produce an instruction manual for other organizations and municipalities seeking a train-the-trainer renewable energy curriculum, and neighboring states like Indiana have already expressed interest.

“Sarah Mills is a tremendous educator,” Stanford said. “I think the whole experience opened a lot of eyes and alleviated some possible previously held biases and concerns with our locals. It helped them see that with good regulations and sound planning and zoning techniques and tools, the undesirable aspects of a solar development can be greatly minimized, and it shouldn’t be detrimental to you or your community.”