Higher Education and Sustainability

Utility plans solar garden at university

August 19, 2015
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WMU Solar Garden
Consumers Energy could build a solar park at Western Michigan University. Courtesy Consumers Energy

A state-of-the-art solar garden array could be operational in Kalamazoo County as early as next spring.

Western Michigan University announced on Aug. 14 that its board has approved a recommendation to allow the university to enter into an agreement with Consumer Energy granting land to the Michigan-based utility company to construct a solar garden array near the WMU College of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The partnership

The board approval allows WMU to enter into a series of individual agreements with Consumers Energy and participate in the company’s community solar program providing a new source of renewable energy in the state. The recommended agreement would allow Consumers Energy to build a solar facility along U.S. 131 and west of WMU’s engineering complex on an approximately 9.6-acre parcel of land.

Peter Strazdas, associate vice president for facilities management at WMU, said the state-of-the-art technology would be developed on the engineering campus and adjacent to the Business Technology and Research Park.

“There’s a tremendous amount of synergy built into this entire effort,” said Strazdas. “It will further WMU’s image as a sustainable university and help support both education and service on several levels.”

Brian Wheeler, senior public information director at Consumers Energy, said at this point the partnership is in more of a preliminary agreement and the two organizations are working through final details.

“We hope to have a final agreement in place and look to construct the park early next year, and put it into operation next year, perhaps as early as the spring,” said Wheeler. “(WMU) is obviously showing interest in helping us with this project and any time you have an agreement with property you have to work through all the legal and other details. They are wonderful to work with and have a lot of enthusiasm for this possibility.”

If the project is fully implemented, Consumers also committed to provide WMU with $120,000 in funding over a six-year period for a Solar Learning Module, and $55,000 for the university to construct up to three additional solar systems for research and educational use, according to a press release.

The Solar Learning Module is intended to not only educate WMU and K-12 students in the area, but also train emergency first responders in how to deal with solar arrays.

The program

Consumers Energy announced on Aug. 17 moving forward with its Solar Gardens program to add new sources of renewable energy in the state.

The large-scale solar gardens would convert energy into direct electricity using a photovoltaic array. Electricity produced by the garden would be delivered into the Consumers distribution system and customers participating in the program would receive energy credits.

The community solar energy program could produce up to 10 megawatts in total with roughly one to two megawatts produced in the potential garden site at WMU, according to Wheeler.

“We are projecting 10 megawatts, the grand total is equivalent to about what 2,000 homes would use,” said Wheeler. “We are starting off relatively small, because we want to get a sense of how practical and how effective it can be.”

Although solar energy is generally twice as expensive as the more cost-effective wind resource, Wheeler said the utility company decided to launch the solar program based on feedback from customers interested in alternative energy resources.

“We certainly hear from many people we serve that they are interested in seeing Michigan develop more renewable energy, and in the case of the solar energy garden, we are giving people the opportunity to be a part of this program,” said Wheeler.

The utility plans to announce the program pricing and to begin enrolling customers later this fall. Kalamazoo-based WMU and Allendale-based Grand Valley State University are two potential sites for solar gardens, according to the Consumers Energy release.

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