Projects shine light on solar power in Michigan

October 30, 2010
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LANSING — Despite its reputation for gray skies, clouds and rough winters, Michigan may begin to rely more heavily on solar power to meet its electricity demands, some energy experts say.

“Our focus is to continue to grow the solar industry in terms of implementation and funding,” said Amy Butler, director for the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth’s Bureau of Energy Systems.

Solar is part of an alternative energy menu, along with biomass, wind, geothermal and hydroelectric.

What are the advantages of solar energy to the state?

Mark Roberts, economics professor at Michigan Technological University, said, “One of the most important benefits is that solar energy reduces the amount of pollution.” Other benefits include the reliability of solar panels, silent operation of solar cells and the fact that users are not required to connect their system to the power grid, Roberts added.

He said solar power users will have the option of selling surplus electricity to utility companies, and solar systems may qualify for tax incentives.

A number of solar energy programs are in operation or development in Michigan, and some fairly large projects are being considered, said John Sarver, supervisor of technical assistance at the State Energy Office.

For example, Sarver said Monroe County Community College is installing a 500-kilowatt system, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Michigan is installing a 150-kilowatt system next to its parking ramp in Detroit. He said the Coldwater Board of Utilities is installing an 8-megawatt system.

Other projects are in the northern Lower Peninsula, such as a 10-kilowatt system at Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City. Grand Traverse County was awarded a $353,575 federal grant to complete the installation of solar panels for the Civic Center, along with boiler replacements and lighting improvements.

However, the use of a solar energy system has some drawbacks.

Roberts said disadvantages include high costs of material and higher costs than non-renewable energy purchased from utility companies. Also, system efficiency depends on the location of the sun and is influenced by weather, clouds, air pollution and nighttime darkness.

Despite such drawbacks, Sarver said solar electric energy systems don’t generate much resistance from the public because they’re relatively small and are not obtrusive. Sarver said wind turbines spark more resistance.

Although Michigan has less potential for solar energy than many other states, said Roberts, he feels that “Michigan has the potential to use solar energy on a larger scale.”

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