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It’s getting hard to keep up with solar’s growth

Solar installation on MEC roof.

News of the solar power industry’s growth has been so fast and furious lately that it’s hard to stay on top of it all.

President Obama on Wednesday announced $120 million in new federal investments in solar. “The initiatives focus on the Department of Energy, where the bulk of the funding will go to programs to develop solar power technology and get it into homes, businesses and other facilities,” The Hill reported.

The announcement follows a report earlier this month showing that U.S. solar passed the 20-gigawatt mark in the second quarter of 2015. (One gigawatt is enough to power about 164,000 homes.) The report predicts 7.7 gigawatts of solar will go online nationally this year alone.  In the first half of the year, 40 percent of all electric generation brought online nationwide came from solar.

Solar growth graph

Source: GTM Research / SEIA U.S. Solar Market Insight

Here in Michigan, you can get a feel for solar’s momentum just by scanning the headlines. Frankly, there have been too many announcements lately to keep track of, but here are some highlights:

  • Trustees at Michigan State University last week approved what—at this point, anyway—would be the state’s largest solar array. The 10-megawatt project calls for outfitting five campus parking lots with solar panel parking bays. The sun, you may have noticed, shines for free, so the university will lock in a fixed power price for the next 25 years—a move that could save the school $10 million on its power bills.
  • Also in Spartan country, Mayor Nathan Triplett said last week that East Lansing and the Lansing Board of Water and Light are closing in on an agreement for a community solar project. In community solar, residents subscribe to a portion of a solar array and receive a share of the returns based on their investment. It allows more residents to invest in local clean energy, even if they don’t have room on their property or in their budget for their own solar installation. “It’s no longer a question of if, but when community solar is coming to East Lansing,” Triplett said.
  • On Tuesday, officials from DTE Energy, Domino’s Farms and Ann Arbor Township dedicated what is now the state’s largest solar array. The 1.1-megawatt array of more than 4,000 panels is located at Domino’s Farms, just off M-14 near the interchange with U.S. 23. DTE also is building a 750-kilowatt project in Romulus and is planning an 800-kilowatt array in Ypsilanti. And the company has requested proposals for a project that will generate up to a whopping 50 megawatts and could be online by the end of 2016, the Detroit Free Press reports. Just to drive that point home: In about a year, what today is Michigan’s largest solar array could be dwarfed by an installation 50 times larger.
  • Consumers Energy plans to begin construction soon on community solar projects in West Michigan, as part of the utility’s Solar Gardens program. The plans involve partnerships with Grand Valley State University in Allendale and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Details on how much power will be generated are unclear, but the arrays will occupy 9.62 acres on WMU’s engineering campus, and 17 acres south of GVSU’s campus, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Kirigami-inspired solar from U-M

Kirigami-inspired solar, courtesy U-M

And that’s just the latest on new solar installations. There’s also been plenty of news in Michigan about solar manufacturing and innovation.

Southfield-based advanced battery company V-Max USA, for example, announced plans yesterday to build a new facility for the growing solar energy component of its business.

Also this month, researchers at the University of Michigan made headlines with a new type of solar panel inspired by kirigami, the Japanese art of paper cutting. And Michigan State engineers continue to draw coverage of their clear glass panels that could turn office windows into solar arrays.

Transparent MSU solar panel

Transparent solar concentrator, courtesy MSU

This news roundup probably just scratches the surface. If we’re missing important recent solar developments from Michigan, please let us know in the comments section.

We should point out that, while all of the solar installations mentioned above are utility-scale projects, it’s not just power companies that are getting in on the action. Last month the Michigan Public Service Commission reported that more than 1,800 utility customers in Michigan now take advantage of the state’s net metering program. In net metering, utility customers with solar panels on their property see their monthly electric bills reduced to reflect the amount of electricity they provide to the power grid. We use net metering here at MEC headquarters.

However, some state legislators want to undermine net metering by forcing anyone with rooftop solar to buy all of their power from their utility at a retail rate and sell back what they produce at the much lower wholesale rate. If passed as written, the legislation would probably drive solar installers out of business and prevent homeowners from creating their own power, given its built-in economic disincentives.

This fall, as they debate what’s next for our state’s energy policy, Michigan lawmakers should acknowledge the undeniable success of our solar industry and tap into its almost boundless potential for growth. And they should make sure anyone who wants to can be part of our state’s solar transformation.

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Top image by Trumpie Photography.

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