SHIAWASSEE COUNTY — Construction on the $250-million Assembly Solar Project — a 1,200-acre solar farm spread across parts of Hazelton and Venice townships — could begin in a matter of weeks, representatives from Ranger Power, the developer of the project, said Tuesday.

The company is in the final stages of obtaining additional construction permit approvals from the county drain commission, health department and road commission, and the state, according to Sergio Trevino, director of permitting at Ranger Power.

“We’re having meetings and calls with the county over the next few days to kind of figure all of this out, but what we’re hearing from them is that they should be able to turn these permits around to us within two to three weeks,” Trevino said via phone Tuesday. “Our goal is to have all of that done and to be ready to start construction before the end of this year. We’re on track for that. Obviously with weather being an issue, the earlier we can get started the better, so we would love to get started sometime in October, but depending on how long it takes to get the permits, that could be November.”

Once complete, the Assembly Solar Project will generate 239 megawatts of electricity for power companies, which would sell electricity to Consumers Energy. On top of the $250-million investment, $16 million in construction spending is anticipated in the county, company representatives said.

Sean Harris, senior development manager at Ranger Power, said the company began scouting the area in June 2017. Part of what was attractive about the region was the existing infrastructure, according to Harris. The company plans to connect into an existing electrical substation west of M-13 near Wilkinson Road in Venice Township.

“It’s also a great location as far as there are very little in the way of any kind of environmental sensitivities, you know, there’s very little in the way of wetlands out there. There’s a few drains and ditches, but overall it’s extremely flat and kind of perfect for what we’re looking for,” Harris said.

The Shiawassee County Planning Commission unanimously approved Ranger Power’s special use permit for the project Jan. 23. At the meeting, Harris and Trevino presented 36 letters of support for the project.

Harris said, from the beginning, the company employed a community-first approach.

“Beginning about six months before we had any kind of hearings, we started meeting with the adjacent landowners, anyone who could potentially live next to what would be the project area,” Harris said. “We wanted to do that to provide information about the project, answer questions, address any concerns, and with some folks, you know, that meant having even two or three or four different meetings with them. We just wanted to make sure that we were the first ones that they heard from, rather than getting a letter in the mail and having that be the first time they hear about the project.”

The solar farm will be set up in large blocks of panels which, when tilted, will be a maximum 16 feet tall. The farm will be quiet except for a “slight humming noise” from inverters, which will be placed in the middle of the panel blocks — which themselves will be no closer than 50 feet from property lines — to limit the sound. In October 2018, Trevino said, a study the company conducted showed the noise did not exceed ordinance limits.

The project will be developed on approximately 1,245 acres of farm fields and vacant land, leased by eight area landowners, for a minimum of 20 years, and a maximum of 40, Harris said.

Nancy Van Gilder, of Fowlerville, is among the landowners leasing property to the project. Van Gilder Properties, which owns land in several counties, is owned by her family. Her late father started the corporation, which is leasing approximately 670 acres of farmland in Shiawassee County to Ranger Power.

“Financially, it was the best decision for us,” Van Gilder said. “My siblings and I, we’re all near retirement age and would like to slow down within the next five to six years.”

The Van Gilder family farms corn, soybeans and wheat throughout Shiawassee, Livingston and Ingham counties.

Van Gilder said she and her five siblings are all still involved in the farming in one way or another, but the industry has been tough in recent years.

In leasing the land to Ranger Power for a profit, Van Gilder said there’s no risk.

“It doesn’t matter if it rains all spring, we’ll still get a payment,” Van Gilder said. “This past spring, we had a few thousand acres that we did not get planted, and that affects things all the way down the line, from the sales people to the fertilizer people to cashing in the crops at the end of the year. At least with this you kind of have a guaranteed payment…The last couple of years have been challenging with weather conditions and I just don’t know if that’s going to become more of the norm.”

In addition to providing income to lease-holding landowners, the project will create approximately 300 construction jobs, and will generate an estimated $25-million in tax revenue during its lifespan, Trevino said.

Harris noted a typical concern with solar projects is the amount of farmland being taken out of production, but, he said, it’s important to remember this is a temporary development.

“We’re not putting anything that’s going to stay in the ground forever, it’s going to be removed, there’s no concrete work or anything that is put on these parcels, so it’s something where the land can return to an agricultural and productive state once the project is decommissioned and, if anything, it could have even positive benefits on soil health, letting the soil lay fallow for this period of time,” Harris said. “(During the life of the project) We’re required to vegetate it, so it’s not going to be exposed to the elements, it won’t be eroding and it won’t be getting compacted from farming it year after year.”

Trevino added the company will post a bond for the decommissioning of the project, though the precise dollar amount hasn’t been determined by the company and county officials.

“I think sometimes people are afraid that the county or the townships or even individual landowners are going to be left holding the bag and we’re just going to disappear one day,” Trevino said. “If something were to go wrong with the company, we have to post a bond that covers the cost of removing the project and we’ll do that…Realistically, for most of the project life, the value of the solar panels and the other equipment will out-pace the cost of decommissioning…Just as it’s easy to construct, it’s easy to decommission.”

Once all permits are approved, construction will take about nine months, according to Harris, though any construction completed this year would be minor, with the majority of the work beginning in the spring of 2020.

Once completed, the project will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 394,000 tons annually, equivalent to taking 77,702 cars off the road, according to Trevino.

He added that at this point, all indications are that the project will move forward.

“We’re kind of at the stage now where anything that could’ve really stopped the entire project would have been identified a long time ago, either by the county or by us. It’s possible that there could be some adjustments made to the project, but they should only be minor adjustments,” Trevino said.

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