December Meeting Focused on Community Solar and Renewable Energy

David Konkle presents reasons for community solar efforts at the December WMSBF meeting.

West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum member representatives and guests joined nationally renowned renewable energy activist David Konkle on Monday afternoon for a discussion of community solar systems and renewable energy in Michigan at the December WMSBF luncheon meeting.

The meeting, held at Kentwood Office Furniture on Monday, also featured Haris Alibašić, director of the City of Grand Rapids’ Office of Energy and Sustainability, presenting on current solar energy efforts in the city and a town hall-style panel discussion with resident experts on renewable energy.

For Konkle, renewable energy is not only a matter of economics or environmentalism—it’s central to future generations. “We are all making the decisions on energy in the next few years that will really affect their future both locally, here in Michigan, and nationally, and globally,” he said, introducing his presentation.

Community solar systems, according to Konkle, operate on a similar basis to community gardens: those interested in buying into solar power pool their money together, and in return, receive a share of the solar energy. “That’s basically what we’re seeing happen [with community solar]. [Discussion about community solar] is happening in church groups, in neighborhood groups, in business groups all over the state of Michigan right now.”

Konkle listed several justifications for establishing new community solar programs. First, new community solar programs allow the funds used on energy to remain completely in the local economy after the systems are installed. Community solar systems also provide a way for communities to establish energy independence. Finally, the sites selected for community solar collector installations are placed in locations where they will be effective, allowing people who might not have a suitable site on their own property to utilize solar energy.

Konkle noted the rapid growth of community solar projects over the past several years in his presentation: the amount of power generated from community solar installations saw a five-fold increase between 2008 and 2012. Among the new community solar programs, Konkle highlighted the Michigan-based Cherryland Electric Cooperative ‘s work with Traverse City Light and Power as Solar Up North, and also the newly-established Tri-City Electric Cooperative.

While Konkle showcased Cherryland Electric Cooperative’s efforts that resulted in over 220 collector units being installed to meet demand, he also noted several roadblocks to widespread community solar systems. Current laws limit net metering, which allows electricity produced by customers to be used to offset energy costs from local utility companies, and also local zoning policies often do not have set regulations for solar installations. Additionally, depending on the arrangement of services with local utility companies and participants in the community solar program, SEC regulations can create roadblocks to effective community solar organization.

However, Konkle was hopeful that new legislation in coming years may ease the barriers to community solar. Current efforts to move community solar forward include crowdfunding solar projects and small-scale community solar installations. “We are working right now to at least consider pilot programs for those who are interested in being early adopters in community solar,” he said.

Konkle was followed by Alibašić, who presented the City of Grand Rapids’ current plans for installing a solar system on the site of the Butterworth landfill. According to Alibasic, feasibility research for the location, which is a superfund site, are currently underway.

“ Right now, we are looking at some of the arrangements we could make with this site,” said Alibasic. “One of them could be community solar.”

Reservations are currently being accepted for the January WMSBF Luncheon Meeting, held at Downtown Market in Grand Rapids, which will feature discussion on regional food systems.

For more information on community solar systems, please see the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association’s website and Community Solar Guidebook.

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