Commercial sun power blooming in Grand Rapids

March 19, 2010
| By Pete Daly |
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Cascade Engineering, which hurriedly completed a 150-kilowatt solar electric generating system recently on the roof of the Padnos Iron & Metal recycling plant on 44th Street, will soon start construction of its own 150-kilowatt solar system.

“We’re putting our money where our mouth is,” said Michael Ford, manager of Cascade Engineering’s Renewable Energy division. The planned system, which has been approved by Consumers Energy for inclusion in its Experimental Advanced Renewable Program, will be at Cascade Engineering’s manufacturing complex in southeast Grand Rapids and is expected to be in operation by mid- to late summer.

Like the $1.27 million, 150-kilowatt system on the roof of the Padnos plant that was formally dedicated last week, Cascade Engineering’s solar power plant will be tied into the electrical grid and Consumers Energy will buy all the electricity produced from it for 12 years, under its EARP project. Consumers announced last year it would purchase a total of two megawatts of electricity generated by solar systems in Michigan, with about 75 percent of that to come from commercial-sized installations — up to 150 kilowatts peak output — and the remainder from small solar installations like those on homes.

Consumers launched the EARP project and its incentives as an experiment, to get solar systems tied into the grid so that the company can begin studying the reliability and other issues related to solar generation. Consumers is paying up to 45 cents per kilowatt hour for electricity from commercial-sized systems, much higher than the cost of electricity generated at conventional fuel-burning power plants, and at least four to six times the amount Consumers charges business customers for the electricity they use. Residential-size systems accepted in the EARP program will be paid 65 cents per kilowatt hour. Jon Allen, manager of the Next Generation division at Consumers Energy, said another large-scale solar system at Galesburg has been accepted into the EARP program, and contracts for others are almost final.

“We have applications or proposals for more than enough (solar energy) capacity, so (EARP) is essentially full,” said Allen.

The EARP program is a voluntary effort by Consumers Energy, although the solar energy purchased through it will count toward the 10 percent Renewable Portfolio Standard established by PA 295 enacted in Michigan in 2008. The law requires the state’s utility companies to obtain at least 10 percent of their electricity supply from renewable sources, as opposed to conventional power plants that use fossil or nuclear fuel.

Cascade Engineering, which assembles, sells and installs the Swift small wind turbine, also developed a solar power installation capability as part of its Cascade Renewable Energy division, although it does not manufacture photovoltaic panels.

The Padnos system comprises 636 3-by-5 solar panels made by Sharp Solar Energy Solutions Group in Tennessee, a division of Sharp Electronics of Japan. The panels cover a 15,000-square-foot area on the roof of the Padnos recycling facility at 500 44th St. in Wyoming.

Jeff Padnos, the president of Padnos Iron & Metal, said the company expects the system to recover its cost in about eight years. After selling all the electricity it produces to Consumers Energy for 12 years, Padnos will begin using the electricity itself.

Eight years may be considered too long to wait for payback of an investment but Padnos said they were willing to consider it because “this one has some social and some goodwill advantages.” He noted, however, that without the incentive offered by Consumers Energy, plus federal investment tax credits for renewable energy, “we wouldn’t have done it.”

One expensive factor in commercial-scale electrical generation is the cost of high-voltage transmission lines, but those were already in place near the 44th Street site. The venture “isn’t risk-free, but it’s expected to work,” said Padnos.

“There’s theoretical and then there’s making it work. People talk about technical details; you’ve also heard about the devil being in the details,” said Padnos. Those details include issues such as snow covering the solar panels, and the load the system adds to the roof.

There are “variables,” said Padnos, such as “is it worthwhile to send someone up there with a broom to brush off the snow? Our preliminary answer is, it depends on what the forecast is for tomorrow. If you expect a full, sunny day, then it’s worthwhile to do it.”

“We might do it anyway, just for accessibility” for checking the system on the roof, he said.

The actual day-to-day experience of a system in use will reveal a lot of useful information, which Padnos said they intend to share “so people can compare.”

Another issue is the load factor on the roof. Padnos said they considered making the angle of the panels adjustable for maximum direct sunlight, but that apparatus would add to the load, and a steeper angle of repose would also increase the wind load.

Ford said the solar panels have a 25-year warranty and the inverter that converts the direct current to alternating is good for 15 years.

“It’s a relatively low-maintenance system,” said Ford. He said it will need frequent inspection to make sure everything is operating properly and safely.

Ford said one thing they are interested in seeing is how much dust, if any, builds up on the panels over time, which could conceivably impact operation of the system.

“We don’t really expect that too much here, because the natural climate is a good cleaning agent.” He said the heavy rain often experienced in Michigan “will certainly clean off the modules frequently.”

Ford said the Padnos system, which is one of, if not the largest solar installation that Consumers Energy is aware of in Michigan, “was a lightning-fast project” with installation done in two months late last year. It was rushed because Consumers Energy quickly began receiving applications for the EARP program and Cascade Engineering “also wanted to participate in the program, if we could.”

Ford said the Cascade system will “most likely” be a rooftop installation too.

To people who question whether Michigan is sunny enough for efficient solar energy, Ford said he points out that the largest solar energy market in the world is in Germany right now, “and the best spot in Germany, or near it, is worse” than the best area in Michigan, from a solar resource standpoint.”

While Padnos is its first commercial-sized solar installation, “we’ve got others in the works here in Michigan,” said Ford.

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