To avoid getting burned in its first foray into producing electricity from the sun, Traverse City Light & Power is taking small steps and is wisely creating a financial safety net first.
The city-owned utility's board agreed this week to proceed with plans for a small-scale solar generation project. The 50-kilowatt photo voltaic system would be funded by a premium paid by utility customers who sign up for that service, just as the utility funded its wind turbine west of the city years ago.
The first step will be to determine just how many customers will be willing to pay the premium, which Light & Power has pegged at $16 a month. Future plans will depend on how much support the program has; Light & Power director Ed Rice said the utility would need 60 to 70 customers to sign up to cover the initial $250,000 it will cost to get it up and running.
Customers who sign up will purchase a 100-kilowatt "sun block" of solar power — about one fifth of a typical household's monthly energy use — to replace mostly coal-generated power.
It's no secret that solar power is not cost effective compared to other energy sources, particularly coal, and Light & Power is up front about that. But it is imperative that even small electric utilities like Light & Power continue weaning themselves from coal to become more sustainable and to help cut down on the pollution and carbon emissions coal plants create.
Rice acknowledged that the project won't be a major power producer for Light & Power. Fifty kilowatts is less than 10 percent of the 600 kilowatts produced by the wind turbine along M-72, which went on-line in 1996. But the solar array will provide a sustainable power source and help the utility diversify.
The program is aimed at residential customers, but commercial users can sign on.
The statewide effort to increase its percentage of sustainable power sources could get a major push this fall. A group called Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs has collected enough signatures to put a proposal to require that 25 percent of the state's energy be generated from renewable sources by 2025. The existing target is 10 percent, and Light & Power has reached that goal.
Hitting 25 percent would be a major challenge, but it must be done. We know all too well the environmental price we pay for coal in terms of pollution and acid rain. Now, though, the role of coal in contributing to climate change can't be denied.
Change has to come, but wisely and in steps we can afford.