BY GLENN PUIT
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Cherryland Electric Cooperative wants to launch a solar power project in Grawn, and Traverse City residents may be partners in the clean energy endeavor.
Cherryland General Manager Tony Anderson said the co-op plans to construct a solar panel array at the cooperative's headquarters on U.S. 31. The project would start with 48 solar panels, but Anderson envisions 360 panels or more at the site, if customer demand is strong.
"By everybody coming together, we can make it affordable and see if the community wants solar," Anderson said.
Cherryland hopes Traverse City Light & Power will join the project. A decision whether to allow TCL&P customers to lease solar panels alongside Cherryland members ultimately will be up to the municipal utility's board of directors.
"TCL&P has been talking about doing a community solar project for a couple years and it's gone nowhere," said TCL&P Interim Director Tim Arends. "This is an opportunity to allow people who want solar to be a part of the project."
Cherryland will retain ownership of the solar panels, then lease them to customers for a one-time fee of $470 per panel. Customers will receive an approximate $2 rebate per bill in return.
Participating customers can expect to break even on the investment in about 20 years. That time frame could be shortened with energy optimization credits for customers.
Anderson said one of his goals is to offer solar energy without subsidies.
"If you want to displace some coal, here’s an opportunity to do that," Anderson said. "An opportunity to put up some of your money and realize you aren’t going to break even for about 20 years."
TCL&P is on the hunt for a new executive director after board members ousted former director Ed Rice in October. Arends attempted to dispel rumors that Cherryland and TCL&P might merge.
"It's my opinion that that will never happen," he said. "It’s a question that’s raised about every five years ... it's not something that the customers, ratepayers or taxpayers are interested in."
Cherryland is part of a coalition of rural electric cooperatives that's pushed for construction of a new coal plant in Rogers City. Regulators extended a permit for that plant in December. The leader of the coalition of cooperatives, Wolverine Power in Cadillac, recently acquired a minority interest in Wisconsin Energy Corporation's Presque Isle Power Plant in November, raising further questions about the future of the Rogers City proposal.
Meanwhile, Cherryland's plans for solar garnered praise from clean energy advocates.
“I think it’s terrific idea and a great step forward,” said Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, a local nonprofit agency that advocates for renewable energy as a preferred alternative to fossil fuels' use.
Voss likes that the program makes solar power use simple and affordable for homeowners, compared to erecting their own solar panels.
“I think there will be a strong demand,” Voss said. “Solar is a mainstream priority in this community and this shows it's cost-competitive. This may be the start of something that grows into a more significant program to produce more power from the sun.”