SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — A solar power company is aiming to invest $250 million in a solar farm project in Venice and Hazelton townships that officials say would generate tax revenues, provide income to landowners and create construction jobs.
Unlike a controversial wind energy proposal that drew widespread opposition, the solar farm project — called Assembly Solar — would have minimal visual impact, with solar panels less than 16 feet tall located at least 50 feet from the road, solar company Ranger Power officials said.
“Most people would do their normal driving and not see the project at all,” said Sergio Trevino, director of environmental permitting for Brooklyn, New York-based solar company. “We view it as a win-win, for the community and for us. There’s no perfect way to generate electricity, but solar energy has the fewest issues.”
Ranger Power filed an application for a special use permit with Shiawassee County Tuesday. The company hopes to obtain county planning commission approval by the end of the year, commence building by the end of 2019 and be in operation by the end of 2020.
Trevino and Development Manager Sean Harris kicked off the Assembly Solar project about 1 1/2 years ago, getting to know township officials and other residents, and entering into contracts with eight local farmers, from whom they are leasing or leasing with the option to purchase 1,200 acres, divided roughly equally between the two townships.
“We have reached out to neighbors, local and county officials, politicians, and economic development people,” Harris said. “I was very nervous at first, but we have gotten a very positive response from the community. We have an emotional connection to the area now.”
Trevino and Harris are scheduled to give a presentation on the project at 5 p.m. today during the Shiawassee County Board of Commissioners’ committee of the whole meeting at the Surbeck Building in Corunna.
Assembly Solar would generate 239 megawatts of electricity for Michigan power companies, which would sell electricity to consumers. If built, Assembly Solar would be the largest solar farm in the state, and one of the largest business investments the county has ever seen.
“These guys are awesome. The whole Shiawassee Economic Development Partnership board is very excited about this,” SEDP President/CEO Justin Horvath said. “We have been pleased with the open and proactive communications the company has displayed throughout the development process to date.
“This experience leads us to believe that the company will be a responsible and welcomed member of the Shiawassee County business community,” he continued.
Horvath said he sees the solar farm attracting new businesses to the area: “More and more companies are looking for these opportunities to be socially responsible and go green.”
Harris and Trevino said they chose Michigan because of Ranger Power’s ability to produce solar energy more cheaply than the relatively costly electricity generated here by other means. Also, a state law requires that, by 2021, 15 percent of all power generated in Michigan must be renewable energy.
Why Shiawassee County? For one reason, it boasts a good existing electrical infrastructure, Harris said. Assembly Solar would plug into the electrical substation located just west of M-13 in Venice Township.
In addition, “We don’t want to alter the current landscape, and we wouldn’t do that here,” Trevino said. “The land we’re leasing is flat and dry and doesn’t have much woods. It’s the perfect area to host a solar project.”
Finally, the county already has an ordinance in place regarding solar projects, which Trevino and Harris believe both protects residents and sets forth parameters they can work with. For example, the rule would require Ranger Power to post a bond equal to 125 percent of the cost of removing the solar panels in the event Assembly Solar went bust.
But Ranger Power doesn’t expect to fail.
“All of our costs are up front,” Trevino said. “We will sell at a low price over a long period of time before we begin to recoup our investment. There’s no incentive to let the project go belly-up and abandon it. We’d be giving up money.”
Assembly Solar’s economic impact in the county would be vast, company officials said. On top of a $250-million investment, $16 million in construction costs would be spent in the county, increasing household earnings by an estimated $3.2 million. The eight lease-holder farms would receive income as well.
The solar farm would be set up in large blocks of panels which, when tilted, would be a maximum 16 feet tall. The farm would be quiet except for a “slight humming noise” from inverters, which would be placed in the middle of the panel blocks to limit the sound. Trevino said a study they conducted showed the noise did not exceed the ordinance limit.
The panels produce power at a low voltage, about the same as the voltage in a typical home, Harris said. All of the soil on the leased land would be vegetated with a slow-growing plant.
Ranger Power is about 2 years old, but its executives have decades of combined experience in renewable energy, Trevino said. The company is working on solar projects throughout the Midwest; Assembly Solar is one of its first.
In the short term, Assembly Solar would reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 394,000 tons, the equivalent to taking 77,702 cars off the road, Harris and Trevino said.
“All of us have worked on projects in the shadow of a coal plant, where a number of people are sick or know someone who’s sick, or who’ve had a family member die,” Harris said. “I got involved in solar power because I absolutely care a lot about protecting the environment.”