Tens of thousands of acres needed for solar fields to meet Consumers Energy climate goals

Consumers Energy officials are looking for suitable land to build out nearly 8,000 megawatts of solar generation to meet the company’s own 2040 climate targets.

The utility put solar energy at the heart of its clean energy plan that calls for 60 percent renewable sources of power to meet customer energy needs over the next two decades. Officials expect tens of thousands of acres of solar fields will be needed to meet the company’s climate promises, along with retiring coal-burning power generation.

The clean energy plan will reduce Consumers’ carbon dioxide emissions by more than 63 million tons, officials said.

The company now seeks available farmland that is less than ideal for crop growth, brownfield sites, and even publicly owned parcels between 500 and 900 acres which are flat, open, and treeless, plus in proximity to existing power transmission lines.

“What we’ve promised to do is going to require finding all this land. Finding farmland and other open spaces that are suitable to site the projects themselves,” said Brian Wheeler, Consumers Energy spokesperson.

To meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction goals, the company has agreed to close all three coal-fired units at the JH Campbell plant in Ottawa County in 2025, accelerate battery energy storage development, and rollout massive amounts of solar fields across Michigan.

The plan is part of a proposed settlement with a stakeholder coalition negotiated as part of the utility’s long-term energy plan; the deal awaits approval from the Michigan Public Services Commission (MPSC).

Consumers wants to work with both private landowners and community leaders who want to site solar power plants, said Dennis Dobbs, vice president of Enterprise Project Management and Environmental Services.

“Harnessing the sun is Michigan’s moonshot – and we won’t achieve this historic goal without help,” Dobbs said in a released statement.

He said the goal is to start talks with landowners about “mutually beneficial solar solutions.”

Consumers already has utility-scale solar projects in the works with expectations of 1,100 megawatts of solar capacity to be online by 2024. The company intends to own half of those developments and buy the solar energy generated by private solar developers.

Consumers recently proposed to the MPSC to make $272 million in investments to bolster better reliability and resiliency across the state’s power grid, as well as develop future clean energy generation.

It is part of the company’s five-year, $5.4 billion electric distribution infrastructure investment plan that includes ramped up tree trimming, power pole replacement, and upgraded substations to better withstand more frequent and severe storms because of climate change. The utility’s plan is to invest about $1 billion each year to upgrade the power grid through 2025.

Related article: Michigan’s utilities struggle to keep the power on as climate change intensifies

Guy Packard, the company’s vice president of electric operations, said the main priority of the plan is fewer, shorter, and less frequent power outages, which requires a modernized grid.

Consumers requested a rate change for customers to cover the cost of the investments. The company said the average customer would see their bill increase by about $7.50 per month, if approved by the MPSC.

Other elements of the investment plan call for support to buy the 1,100-megawatt natural gas-fired Covert Generating Station in Van Buren County; easier installation of electric vehicle chargers for residential customers; a proposed economic development power rate to attract new business; and, boosting clean energy investments such as doubling the size of distributed solar generation.

Related articles:

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Consumers Energy agrees to retire full Campbell plant, end coal by 2025

Burying power lines, trimming more trees may improve Michigan’s failure-prone electric grid, experts say

Widespread power outages spark new state website to hold utilities accountable

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