Higher Education and Sustainability

Universities partner with utility to provide solar power

Solar gardens allow WMU, GVSU to further sustainability missions.

September 30, 2016
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Solar power is growing in West Michigan thanks to two solar gardens that began operating this year.

Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo became the second university in the state to partner with Consumers Energy on a solar garden power plant.

The 8.5-acre solar garden, which contains 4,000 solar panels, went online in September.

It will produce one megawatt of solar power, enough to power 200 homes.

Roger Morgenstern, senior public information director for Consumers Energy, said the WMU garden will supply a portion of power for the university.

The solar garden is Consumers’ second partnership with a West Michigan university.

In April, Consumers opened a 17-acre solar garden at Grand Valley State University in Allendale. It is the largest community solar project in Michigan.

The GVSU solar garden consists of 11,000 solar panels capable of producing three megawatts of power.

GVSU has contracted for a portion of that power. The rest will be used to help meet the demand of residential and business subscribers of Consumers’ solar power program.

Morgenstern said universities are good partners for solar garden projects, because they tend to already be interested in renewable energy and have sustainability commitments or programs on their campuses, and solar gardens allow them to further their missions.

He also said both WMU and GVSU have an educational component that is part of their solar garden commitment, so students will benefit from renewable energy education as part of the projects.

Morgenstern said solar gardens are growing in popularity nationwide.

“We are seeing this with other utilities across the country,” he said.

Rather than individual home owners buying solar panels for their roofs, an electricity customer can subscribe to a community solar project for a portion or all of their electricity.

Morgenstern said it can be more cost effective for people to subscribe to solar gardens and purchase solar blocks versus the alternative of purchasing and installing solar panels on their home.

He also said it removes the barrier of having to be a homeowner to take advantage of solar energy, because any electricity customer can subscribe to receive solar power from a solar garden.

“We are finding for people to get into renewable energy, it’s better to do at a utility level,” he said.

Morgenstern said solar customers pay a premium for solar energy, but then receive a renewable energy credit on their bill going forward.

“The cost is spread over a 25-year time period, usually,” he said.

Consumers has a goal of generating enough solar energy to serve up to 2,000 homes in the state.

He said between the GVSU and WMU solar gardens, Consumers is able to serve up to 800 homes with solar power.

“Customers are asking for this,” Morgenstern said.

He said Consumers’ solar garden development will follow the customer demand.

“We are seeing an increased interest, which is driving enrollments,” he said. “As demand increases, we will look to build additional similar gardens across the state.”

Morgenstern said Consumers invested approximately $10.2 million total for its two solar garden facilities at WMU and GVSU.

He said Consumers also has two wind farms in Michigan, one near Lake Michigan and one in the thumb, producing power for renewable energy customers.

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