News Story

Residents Question Replacing Michigan Farmland With Miles Of Solar Cells

Hundreds of wind turbines also changing character of rural communities

A massive solar power installation proposed for a county in southeast Michigan is drawing significant skepticism from local residents who question the idea of covering hundreds of acres of agricultural land with solar panels.

The Carroll Road Solar Farm in Lenawee County, a project of Florida-based esaSolar Energy, would cover 2.5 square miles of farmland with an array of photovoltaic solar collectors reportedly capable of generating 150 megawatts of electricity.

If it goes forward, this would likely be the state’s first industrial-scale project to generate electricity with solar cells. It would join a growing number of industrial wind turbines — already more than 1,100, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission – that are changing the character of many Michigan’s rural communities. These developments are being driven by a 2016 state law that imposes a 15% renewable energy mandate on utilities.

Karlene Goetz, a longtime elected official in Riga Township, where some of the project would be located, said, “I have a hard time buying the notion that this is a good idea. This is very good, productive farmland. We’re trying to preserve our farmland.”

Goetz said she suspects this and other solar projects underway in the state have been launched to take advantage of a decision Gov. Gretchen Whitmer made in 2019. The governor said that landowners who install solar projects on their land could benefit under a 1974 law that authorized property tax breaks for farm owners who agree to not develop their open space and farm properties.

But, Goetz said, filling fields with solar panels, concrete and utility lines isn’t her idea of farmland preservation.

Brochures the project’s developer has distributed to area residents suggest that the project would produce 300 jobs and $18.9 million in local tax revenue over its 35-year lifespan. The company’s Facebook page claims the power facility “will help Michigan achieve its Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard (set to rise to 15% in 2021), and will help provide low cost electricity to the state.”

The analysis shown in the brochures does not appear to consider the value of crops that won’t be grown as a result. It also does not include the various economic activities that won’t take place if agricultural production is displaced by solar collectors.

George Taylor, a Nevada computer science professor and director of Palmetto Energy Research, said the notion that solar energy — especially in a weak sun, northern state like Michigan — can provide cost-effective electricity is an illusion.

Despite improvements in technology, sunlight in Michigan is often impaired in daylight hours, he said. The result, he continued, is that solar energy installations here produce, on average, only 13% of their peak capacity (according to the Michigan Public Service Commission).

At best, he said, relying on solar to replace other energy sources (coal, gas, nuclear and hydro) produces only modest fuel savings and comes with little of the reliability required to power a modern power grid.

“Of course, the (greenhouse gas) reduction may be worth something,” Taylor said, but “there are many other ways the same money could be spent more effectively.”

Taylor said he believes very few of the large-scale wind and solar renewable energy projects would be developed absent significant government subsidies and mandates (like Michigan’s renewable portfolio). The acclaimed investor Warren Buffett has said exactly the same thing, he added.

Many of the local residents who oppose the Lenawee County solar facility said they don’t oppose renewable energy in principle, but they question the wisdom of sacrificing vast swaths of farmland and open space to achieve it.

The Facebook page of one group of opponents says: “Our message is simple: “Solar belongs on brownfields. Not our fields!”

Goetz said she has grown somewhat weary of threats to the area’s farmland. In the 1980s, Lenawee County was proposed as a site for a major low-level nuclear waste disposal facility. (Ultimately, it was not developed). A decade ago, a giant wind turbine farm was proposed, but local voters rejected it.

Goetz predicted that the proposed solar facility could lead to another local referendum. Currently, several of the jurisdictions targeted for solar facilities have enacted six-month development moratoriums to give them time to review the proposed projects.