Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 13, 2013

Editorial: Solar array a step toward future

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — A proposal from Cherryland Electric Cooperative to construct up to 360 solar power generation panels near the cooperatives’s headquarters on U.S. 31 in Grawn is pretty much a feel-good project along the lines of the wind turbine Traverse City Light & Power built in 1996.

The turbine was the largest commercial wind generation structure in the country when it was built, but it never created a significant amount of power, not even enough to pay for itself.

Given the current state of solar science, the Cherryland array will likely never be a serious power source either.

But it will give area residents the opportunity to vote with their pocketbooks and express their support for renewable, sustainable energy. And that matters.

The most common forms of renewable energy —wind and solar — are still being tweaked to increase their ability to produce electricity in a sustainable way on a scale and at a price that can compete with power plants that burn fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. Wind and solar production are reportedly getting more efficient; but they’ll never get to industrial levels without the support of people who think breaking from fossil fuels is important.

The Cherryland project gives individual ratepayers a chance to both express their support for alternate energy and do a little bit to reduce the state’s dependency on fossil fuels.

Cherryland General Manager Tony Anderson said the co-op will start with 48 solar panels, but hopes to expand to 360 or more if customer demand is strong.

Cherryland has extended an invitation to Traverse City Light & Power customers to join the project, but that decision will be up to the Light & Power board. There doesn’t appear to be a reason to say “no.” Light & Power interim director Tim Arends said the utility has talked about a community solar project for years; now’s the chance.

Cherryland will lease panels to customers for a one-time fee of $470 per panel. Customers will receive an approximate $2 rebate per bill in return. They can expect to break even in about 20 years. The real aim here is to “displace some coal,” not break even.

This project underscores Light & Power’s need to find a new executive director who can help the utility make smart decisions about its future. Does the utility want to be a power generator and build its own power plant? What’s the best way to invest in new technology?

Leasing a solar panel is more than just a feel-good gesture. The less coal we burn the better, and every bit counts. Even if it takes 20 years.