Government, Real Estate, and Sustainability

City’s solar-generating proposal moving forward

The Office of Energy and Sustainability is planning to issue an RFQ/RFP.

September 12, 2014
| By Pete Daly |
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A combined RFQ-RFP will hopefully be issued by the city of Grand Rapids by late October to start the process of finding qualified solar energy developers willing to submit bids for a proposed generating facility on the city-owned former Butterworth landfill site.

Last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency granted $30,000 to Grand Rapids to cover the cost of a solar reuse assessment — essentially, an engineering study that determined the Butterworth site was suitable for two separate installations of photovoltaic panels that would occupy a total of 38 acres, producing up to 10.5 megawatts of electricity or more than 11,000 megawatt hours per year.

Skeo Solutions of West Virginia, which prepared the report, said the estimated cost of building would range from a low of $24.7 million to a high of $34.5 million.

When the proposal gained the support of the EPA a couple of years ago, Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell called the site “ideally suited for this type of development,” which was backed up by the Skeo report completed this summer.

The city government has a goal of sourcing 100 percent of the electricity it uses from renewable sources by 2020.

The Solar Reuse Assessment of the Butterworth site concludes that the terrain is suitably flat and adjacent to an existing Consumers Energy electric substation and transmission lines. Transmission infrastructure for high voltage is always a key factor in determining the viability of a solar generation site — or a wind generation site, for that matter. Skeo also noted the National Renewable Energy Laboratory has determined Michigan “has a relatively good solar resource” with irradiance levels “considered excellent.”

The old city landfill is off Butterworth Street SW on the north bank of the Grand River, about a mile and a half downstream from the city center. Due to the toxic waste that went into it for generations, the 190-acre landfill was designated a federal Superfund site by the EPA years ago and underwent extensive EPA-supervised remediation to contain the contamination. The process was completed in 2000.

For more than 10 years, the EPA Superfund Redevelopment Initiative has been working with communities around the nation to return Superfund sites to beneficial uses. In EPA Region 5, which includes Michigan, the EPA is providing financial help to evaluate renewable energy generation at certain Superfund sites, Butterworth being one of them.

A major consideration is that the construction causes “no negative impact on the cap” and remediation equipment now on top of the old landfill, said Haris Alibasic, director of the city Office of Energy and Sustainability.

The western 80-acre portion of the landfill considered for solar generation has a 4-foot cap of clay and other material, as does the 41-acre eastern portion also targeted for solar generation. Some privately owned land and a combined storm sewer/drainage ditch separate the two.

The cap is designed to prevent rainfall from seeping into the old landfill and leaching toxic chemicals into the groundwater below. Gas vents are in place on the western unit and groundwater monitoring wells are located along the perimeter.

Alibasic said there are “a lot of groups that are stakeholders” in the Butterworth site, and “we want to make sure everyone is part of” the process now underway of studying the feasibility of a solar-generating facility there.

Stakeholders include Consumers Energy; Furniture City Broadcasting, which has a radio tower on its privately owned land in the middle of the landfill site; and residents of Grand Rapids because the city has reserved part of its land on the site for public recreational use. Of course, the general public is also a stakeholder in regard to preventing the toxic compounds from spreading.

Alibasic said the city has decided to combine the Request for Qualifications and Request for Proposals to help expedite the long and involved process of selecting potential companies to build the solar generation facilities.

The city plans to use the electricity at the municipal wastewater treatment plant on the other side of the Grand River from the Butterworth site.

“We have to make sure this makes economic and financial sense for the city,” said Alibasic. “That’s a key component for a project of this size and scope: How will it benefit the operations” of the city?

There are three scenarios for ownership of the solar generation project. One is direct ownership by a public entity, such as the city or a city-created separate entity. Another is a third-party Power Purchase Agreement in which the public entity hosts the facility and buys the power from it but does not own the generating equipment. The third scenario is an “ownership flip” in which ownership would flip to either the public entity or the developer after a certain period of years, when the investor has fully monetized the tax benefits of the project.

Alibasic said the city administration hopes the project could really get started at some point in 2015, but he noted that getting the required state and federal permits can be very time consuming.

“We’re thinking construction probably wouldn’t begin until next year,” he said, with completion and generation beginning “hopefully” in late 2016.

He emphasized that his is an “optimistic” viewpoint.

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