When Jordan Roberts first visited an old gravel mine outside of Grayling, in the middle of northern Michigan, he was struck by the landscape.
“If I were a teenager I would just have so much fun on this gravel pit,” he said. “It's this massive sand dune.”
The former mine, now managed by Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, has been vacant for years. Most recently state police used the area, known as 7 Mile Pit, as a shooting range.
Now, Roberts is trying to develop the site into a solar farm that could power a few thousand homes, at the very least, he said. “Hopefully we can do much better than that.” He’s the founder of a renewable energy company called Circle Power, and officially started working on the project this fall.
It’s part of a growing effort to build up the state’s solar capacity. That’s as efficiency gains make solar cheaper than conventional sources and many of the state’s coal plants retire, which generate nearly a third of Michigan’s electricity.
“We’re in the process of an energy transition, really everywhere,” said Scott Whitcomb, a public lands expert with the DNR. “[Solar] technology is such that it’s effective even with our seemingly perpetual cloudy days.”
The industry is still in its infancy in Michigan — the state gets less than half of 1 percent of its electricity from solar. But utility companies are looking to change that.
Consumer Energy, one of the state’s largest utilities, says it plans to add more than 6,000 MW of solar energy over the next decade (that’s 30 times more than total installed solar capacity across the state today, a mere 200 MW). The company anticipates it will get more than 40 percent of its energy from wind and solar by 2030.
But to scale up solar in Michigan will require a lot of land. To reach Consumer Energy’s goal alone would require nearly 50 square miles of solar panels, or about the size of Grand Rapids, estimates John Kinch, the director of Michigan Energy Options, a renewable and energy efficiency advocacy organization.
And this land can’t be anywhere. Large-scale solar projects have to be close to power lines and substations so they can connect to the electrical grid. That can pose a problem.
“People are quite supportive of it, but there are a number who don't want to look at it,” said Kinch. Some are concerned about losing farmland to solar projects and others worry about environmental impacts of fields of solar panels.
Developing solar on contaminated areas like capped landfills or former industrial sites, like 7 Mile Pit, serves as “a very elegant side step” to these perception issues, Kinch explained. “You’re not going to redevelop a capped landfill into a Tim Hortons or a childcare center. It’s going to stay there forever.”
That’s why the DNR started looking at the millions of acres of land they manage for unproductive or polluted sites where solar development might be less controversial.
“We want to play a part in the solution,” said Whitcomb, who has worked at the state agency for more than two decades. “A lot of times, solar is compatible on these contaminated sites.”
The department’s top picks were the 7 Mile Pit site, outside of Grayling, and a former iron mine in the Upper Peninsula called Groveland Mine. “They were kind of slam dunks,” Whitcomb said.
And these two properties are likely just the first. The state agency plans to offer another round of leases for solar projects next year, according to Whitcomb.
“We’re in the process right now of taking a second look, maybe a much more detailed look, and trying to find some other sites that we can put forward.”
So far, the two projects have received support from local leaders. In Beaver Creek Township, the home of 7 Mile Pit, treasurer Max Meisner thinks the project could provide jobs and tax revenue for the town. “I’m excited. The sooner this starts happening, the better,” he said.
But even with local support, there’s no guarantee the solar farms will ever materialize. Developers need to secure various permits, conduct environmental studies, and find a buyer for the power in advance, before they can start construction.
They also have to ensure a solar project could actually connect to the electrical grid, a study process that takes years to complete. “In a best-case scenario, we’d be two to three years from building a project,” Roberts, of Circle Power, said.
Despite all this, Roberts is cautiously optimistic about the prospects of the DNR projects, and he’s confident in the state’s renewable industry going forward.
“It’s really indicative of what’s happening in Michigan,” he said. “There is truly a transformation going on in the grid.”