May 17 2017 11:48 PM

Solar energy comes to a full boil in mid-Michigan

Icarus, the guy who flew too close to the sun and paid a painful premium, is ancient history.

From 60 acres of solar carports going up on the MSU campus to the Lansing Board of Water & Light’s growing solar arrays to a 1,000-panel community solar “garden” in an East Lansing park, local Icari are brazenly sucking the hell out of the sun and making their toast with it.

Thanks to ever-cheaper photovoltaic solar panels, solar energy is being adopted on an unprecedented scale, even in notoriously cloudy mid-Michigan.

It takes a lot of upfront money and about 10 to 12 years for a solar investment to pay off, so most projects are being built by big players like utility companies or MSU. But as batteries get cheaper and people can store the power they harvest, solar energy has begun to spread into rural areas and has even inched into the cities and suburbs.


LOTS OF ENERGY

Sitting in his glassy office at MSU’s Administration Building last week, Physics Professor Wolfgang Bauer eyed a parking lot on north campus as it warmed up in the mid-May sun.

Bauer is working on a vast project to install carports carpeted with solar panels on parking lots covering 60 acres. The 10 MW array is expected to generate about 15,000 megawatt hours a year, about 5 percent of the electricity used on campus.

That’s an area equal to every rooftop on MSU’s campus combined. Bauer said that rooftops, bristling with equipment and scattered in a sea of trees, aren’t the best places for solar panels at park-like places such as MSU.

“We didn’t want to give up 60 acres of farmland for a solar farm,” Bauer said. “But it’s the optimum use when you’re already using the land.”

Private investors are paying the $20 million for the project and selling the energy to MSU at a fixed price for 25 years. Bauer expects the first solar energy to flow this fall and all of the carports to be finished by the end of the year.

Bauer said MSU expects to save about $10 million over the next 25 years, relative to buying the same amount of energy off the grid, “even at the lower prices we get as a large consumer.”

In the last decade, electricity prices have risen in Michigan by 3 percent a year. The Information Energy Agency of the U.S. Energy Department predicts that in the next couple of decades, electricity prices will rise by 2.3 percent a year.

That makes the fixed price of solar energy a big selling point, said James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council.

“You don’t have to worry about the uncertainties of fossil fuel prices, regulations and provides more rate stability,” Clift said.

Clift said universities are classic examples of the benefit of long-term investments. “They’re going to be around and they’re going to use energy,” he said. “They’re not worried about moving in seven years.”


BETTER THAN NATURE

It’s been an agonizingly slow sunrise for solar energy. John Kinch, director of Michigan Energy Options, joked that solar energy is “an emerging technology that’s been emerging for 50 years.”

So why is it taking off now? Until about five years ago, the cost of solar technology went down at a fairly steady, but painfully slow, rate.

In 1976, President Jimmy Carter made a purely symbolic gesture by putting solar cells on top of the White House. Solar energy back then cost about 70 dollars per watt, according to Bauer. As recently as 2010, the price hovered at $3 to $5 per watt.

“But when the Chinese came in, everybody had to automate and follow suit,” Bauer said. “By now, the price has fallen to below $1 per watt— about 70 cents.” He raised an eyebrow as he did the math. “Over 40 years, the price has decayed by about 100 times,” he said. “That is not unusual in ultra-high-tech devices like computers.”

Automation is the key factor driving down cost of solar panels. At factories like the First Solar plant in Toledo, tens of thousands of panels roll through robotic stations where etching and coding is done completely by machine.

The chief roles for humans in the solar industry field are in customer interaction and research and development.

Prices for panels have gotten so low that in the solar carports at MSU and other big installations, the supporting hardware will cost more than the solar panels.

And then there’s the rising efficiency curve.

Scientists love to tell you that Mother Nature is better at almost everything than humans are, but Bauer is having none of that.

Bauer’s office looks over a sea of green blanketing MSU’s “sacred space” at the heart of campus. The trees and other plants are covered with leaves that convert solar radiation into energy — the original solar panels. You’d think millions of years of evolution would have gotten them to peak efficiency.

“Not really,” Bauer said, letting Mother Nature down easy. “Evolution is a great engine for innovation, but it has to live within certain constraints.”

Only 1 percent of the solar radiation hitting a leaf is turned into energy. Bauer has studied the physics of “energy crops” such as corn and grasses that are farmed and mashed into fuel. He found that even those crops produce energy at only about half a percent efficiency.

“With photovoltaic cells, that efficiency is 15 percent, about 30 times better,” Bauer said.

The MSU solar cells are at about 18 percent. They will only lose about half a percent of efficiency per year and last from 30 to 50 years with zero maintenance, except for occasional washing.

Clift likes another thing about the MSU carports.

“Those parking lots are heat sinks, a bunch of concrete heating up all day long in summer,” he said. “Reduce that effect and you can reduced cooling costs in your buildings.”


NO MOVING PARTS

Last Tuesday, the sun peeked from a cloud over the Cedar Street solar array in downtown Lansing, nudging a set of dials in a nearby utility box. BWL’s general manager, Dick Peffley, registered the increase in solar energy by doffing his coat.

The Cedar Street array is modest, but it offsets 250 tons of carbon dioxide a year, equal to emissions from 45 cars.

Young as it is, the array is also a living museum of solar technology improvement. In the first phase, built in 2008, 432 Uni- Solar panels produced 54 KW of electricity. A newer set of 385 panels, laced with superhero-suit circuitry, was installed in 2015, almost tripling the output to 158 KW.

The BWL’s planning director, George Stojic, said the second-phase panels produce twice the electricity, in less space, at one-third the cost of the earlier panels.

Compared to the boilers, turbines, pipes and wiring that stuff a power plant, there’s not much happening on this grassy berm in the heart of downtown. A small bank of inverters about the size of a large suitcase flips the current from DC to AC. The current then goes through a transformer to “marry” with the system voltage. There’s a modest bank of meters and breakers and that’s about it.

“Pretty simple, no moving parts,” Stojic said.

This conspicuous parcel of land is more showcase than workhorse, but with solar panels getting cheaper and cheaper, the BWL has much bigger arrays in the works.

The BWL is partnering with private investors to build a 20 MW solar farm in Delta Township, one of the biggest under construction in the state.

“They’ve leased the land, started to clear it and they’re going through design right now,” Peffley said.

Even bigger arrays are being built across Michigan. In 2016, DTE Energy built one of the largest solar arrays in North America, a 50 MW solar farm near Lapeer, east of Flint, that can power about 9,000 homes.

Stojic marveled at how the projects are scaling up.

“When the first phase of this went in,” he said, waving at the Cedar Street panels, “it was 50 KW (one-half of one megawatt) and it was the largest array in Michigan.”

The advances in technology are relentless. The older (2008) panels at the BWL’s Cedar Street installation produce 120 watts per panel; the newer ones produce 270. At the BWL’s planned Delta array, panels will produce 330 watts and will tilt to track the sun.

The Michigan sun shines only about 20 percent of the time, while wind power is available about 40 percent of the time. Even so, Peffley said there is good reason to invest in solar energy.

“Solar is there when you need it, on those 90-degree summer days,” Peffley said.

As the BWL’s power plants age out of service, Peffley said, solar arrays still need backup power — most likely from natural gas-fired plants — but he said solar energy will allow the utility to “scale back” the size of the plants.

For now, the biggest stumbling block to even bigger arrays is the state of battery technology.

“There’s no way to store energy large scale right now,” Peffley said. “When that comes around, it will be a game changer. We’re watching it.”


SLAMMED

Last Thursday, Ken Zebarah did his interview for this story while driving from a solar installation at a self-storage company in Chelsea to another one at a manufacturing plant in Hillsdale. Zebarah is Michigan territory manager at Jacksonbased Harvest Energy Solutions and he’s a very busy man this spring.

“We’re slammed,” Zebarah said. In all of 2016, Harvest Energy installed complete solar systems, from panels to batteries, at about 40 farms, businesses and homes in Michigan. By the end of April 2017, Harvest had equaled that number of installations, most of them bigger than last year’s jobs, but with a backlog of 15 contracts he hasn’t turned a shovel on yet.

Liesl Clark, president of the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council and a principal at 5 Lakes Energy, said the business has “really picked up steam” this year. “Solar installers have done as much business in the first quarter as all of last year,” she said.

Zeborah said the cost of solar panels has “plateaued,” but “the big thing that’s getting quicker and cheaper very quickly is batteries and storage.”

Three or four years ago, getting completely off the grid, storing power with batteries, cost three to four times more than to use net metering. Now it’s only 50 percent more and going down, Zeborah said.

Within two years, Zeborah expects to be able to tell his customers they can either “get rid of their electric bill” for, say, $100,000 — but still remain tied to the grid and pay metering fees — or “never talk to your power company again” for $140,000.

“I know which one I would do,” Zeborah said.

To further nudge people off the grid, Michigan’s Public Service Commission is working out a comprehensive energy policy that is likely to include tariffs for net metering customers.

Zeborah said the utilities are “shooting themselves in the foot” by lobbying for the tariff. “As they push away from solar, the battery technology is getting more cost effective very quickly,” he said. “People are going to say, ‘Fine, I’ll just go off the grid and you’ll get nothing from me.’”


THROUGH THE ROOF

When he’s not overseeing the BWL service area, Peffley likes to tinker in his yard. He looked at putting solar shingles on a shed near his house, but he recoiled at the “sticker shock.”

“The cost will come down,” Peffley said.

He pointed at the BWL panels from 2008. “This is probably about $110 a kw to put in,” he said. “Our next ones will be about $40.”

Between the utility-scale solar arrays and pricey residential solar panels lies a third model, embodied locally by East Lansing’s Community Solar project at Burcham Park.

For $399, BWL is leasing its customers panel for 25 years and credits the lessee for the electricity generated by the panel. Two panels would cover the average cost of powering a refrigerator for a year, according to Michigan Energy Options statistics.

You would have to lease 29 panels, for $11,571, to generate the annual electricity use of the average U.S. home. As with all solar projects, that’s a lot of money up front, but it will pay for itself in 10 to 12 years, depending on how much juice you use. If you divide that amount by the 25-year life of the lease, you get a pretty modest annual electric bill of $462.84.

Clark expects community solar “gardens” to become more popular in the next few years. About 400 panels at the East Lansing project have already been sold. Ground will break when the number reaches 700.

“You get economies of scale with big installations,” Clark said. “That’s one of the neat thing about the East Lansing project. People can buy in and not worry about what they can produce at their own homes.”

In the Upper Peninsula, where electricity rates have reached 24 cents an hour, the soaring cost of energy is driving an unprecedented solar boom. North of the Mackinac Bridge, solar installers are busier than ever. Some utilities in the U.P. have hit their state-mandated 1-percent cap on distributed generation, or power generated at a home or business.

At most utilities in the state, Clift said, distributed generation is only about half a percent of the load.

Lansing’s BWL reported a paltry 10 homes and four businesses participating in the net metering program, even with incentives of up to $2,000. (Net metering allows ratepayers to generate their own electricity and sell the excess back to the utility.)

Part of the reason is that the BWL’s rates are relatively low, about 12 cents a kilowatt hour.

As of the end of 2015, there were only about 2,200 “distributed generation” customers, most of them farms with wind turbines or solar panels, in Michigan.

“There’s been an uptick, but it’s still pretty low compared to other parts of the country,” Clift said.

Back at MSU, Wolfgang Bauer said he is confident that solar energy will soon spread to homes and businesses.

“Private customers, pretty soon, will be able to have roof tiles that have solar cells integrated into them and that will last 50 years or so,” Bauer said.

Two days after Bauer uttered those words, on May 10, Tesla unveiled the details of its long-awaited residential solar roof system — a hefty investment of 21.85 a square foot that only pays off over decades, but then again — holy wah, it’s a solar roof.

“It came in below where the analysts thought it would be,” Clift said. “Especially with new homes, this is going to very quickly become standard.”

Roofs, Kinch said, are only the beginning of “integrated solar” building technology that will turn cities and suburbs into vast, distributed power plants. MSU researchers have already developed “energy window glass” you can look through and opaque materials that double as walls, trim and door frames.

“In the future, you’re going to have a building that’s one big honking solar generator,” Kinch said.

Kinch said that people are buying panels at East Lansing’s community solar project for a variety of reasons. Alone among the experts I talked to for this story, he took a break from the relentless economics that dominate every discussion of solar energy and tugged at the underlying thrill of it all.

“This is a way to promote social, economic and environmental benefits in your community,” he said. “If people care about climate change, this is a tangible way to at least do something yourself and not throw up your hands and give up.”