Forum: Small (solar) is beautiful for our energy needs


Cherryland Electric Cooperative argues against local small-scale solar in recent editorials, saying “go big or go home.” It’s a veiled attempt to justify their killing solar energy for members.

Small solar is beautiful. Distributed solar balances generation, eliminating transmission and distribution losses and expenses. One cloud can cut a large solar array to 10 or 20 percent, while distributed solar provides balance, grid voltage and frequency support, reduces emissions, avoids fuel cost and supplies risk, avoids future carbon costs, provides local energy financing and economic development. If homeowners, landowners, farmers and schools had the opportunity it would be simple to make 100 percent or more of our electric needs from solar. If cooperative members such as Crystal Mountain, Turtle Creek Casino, East Jordan Iron Works, Saint Mary’s Cement and Great Wolf Lodge had the opportunity, as with Leelanau Fruit, they could provide significant solar generation for the region. Wouldn’t it be great to know our cast iron products come mostly from solar energy and recycled metal? This is sustainability! Requirements include some simple policy changes, a guaranteed fair price to make a market for solar and unrestricted net-metering for small members — with priority to connect to the grid.

If Cherryland set a small goal of 20 percent, rather than the 1 percent limit that stopped solar installations, members’ savings would be significant. Cherryland recently raised monthly fees $6 to indirectly cover coal fired generation costs. Raising the average bill $3 per month, roughly $0.004 per kilowatt-hour, would cover 20 percent solar. Since this cost is fixed, long-term savings will grow, providing low cost clean energy — without counting other significant indirect savings.

Leelanau County solar resources exceed 10 times the electric consumption of the state. A tiny fraction can cost-effectively provide 100 percent net solar with tremendous local economic and environmental benefits. One wind turbine per township roughly makes 100 percent of the electric energy for the county. We don’t have to “go big” to be 100 percent renewable powered.

Why does our local electric cooperative want to “go big”? Are they planning a big natural gas fossil fuel power project and don’t want local solar competition from members? Do outside investors want to undercut local ownership and investment? Or does local solar undercut the coal fired generation that burdens our cooperative?

Trying to “go big” hasn’t served our cooperative well. Failing to build a coal plant in Rogers City, they bought into two losing, “underwater” coal plants in Ohio and Indiana and a financially “underwater” Illinois subsidized, atomic power plant. Going big (solar or otherwise) means waiting in line for access to the grid from MISO. This restricts Consumers Energy for its numerous solar projects in the pipeline.

Going small has no waiting line. If Consumers Energy and DTE see that our cooperatives can kill solar energy without consequences or complaint from members, they will follow.

Just as going local for food is hip, so is clean energy. When we haven’t utilized all local resources first, “going big” is a poor management decision.

About the author: Steve Smiley, of Suttons Bay, is an energy economist, energy efficiency and renewable energy expert that has worked with utilities, governments and businesses focusing on the implementation of clean energy.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by emailing Please include biographical information and a photo.