DEED grant spurs community solar effort in Upper Peninsula

Work by Brett Niemi, an energy services representative with Wisconsin-based WPPI Energy, with the village manager of L’Anse, Michigan on getting a solar array installed on a municipal water plant in L’Anse, helped spark an idea about bringing community solar to the peninsula.

Niemi says, “the village manager was talking to the Western Upper Peninsula Planning & Development Region [WUPPDR] about the solar array we installed at the municipal water plant and came up with the idea to apply for a grant from the State of Michigan to do a community solar feasibility study. The application was successful and the project was off and running.”

The first grant from the state of Michigan was followed by a Department of Energy Sunshot grant, which was followed by an American Public Power Association Demonstration of Energy & Efficiency Development (DEED) grant that kicked the project into high gear. The project is aimed at increasing low-to-moderate income household access to the benefits of rural public power community solar programs.

Rather than building a solar array and then trying to sell shares, the program is defined by a multi-stage campaign designed to focus community interest and encourage support. Niemi noted that the first step involves interviews “with key people and leaders in the village, next we set up a community meeting where we invite everybody for a question and answer forum. Then we follow that up with a community survey.” 

One of Niemi’s partners in the project is Brad Barnett at WUPPDR, who has collaborated on the surveys in L’Anse and the village of Baraga, Mich.

The one in L’Anse is complete while the one in Baraga is designed and is scheduled to be implemented this month.

Barnett said, “Our primary role on the project is assisting with community outreach and engagement research activities.”

WUPPDR has worked with researchers from Michigan Technological University (MTU) to design the surveys, which can help gauge potential customer participation in the community solar and energy efficiency programs as well as identify barriers to participation.

The MTU team is headed up by Chelsea Schelly, an associate professor with MTU, who is helping to design and conduct the interviews, surveys, and community meeting discussions, while analyzing the results to help determine the communities’ interest level in the project. Richelle Winkler, another associate professor at MTU, also played a key role with respect to the L’Anse project and is currently involved with work related to Baraga.

Schelly said, “The preliminary results show that people are interested in community solar projects for a multitude of reasons. Some people are drawn to the environmental benefits of renewables, others are interested in the risk-free and long-term investment, while still others think about the benefits related to community pride, identity, and engagement.”

The program is focusing on the villages of L’Anse and Baraga. L’Anse has a population of about 2,500 and Baraga has a population of about 2,000.  The two villages are both member utilities of WPPI and are separated by a small bay that is part of Lake Superior. MTU and WUPPDR have already done the interviews, the community meeting and the survey in L’Anse and then shared the results with the village’s stakeholders. 

Site selection and the assessment occurred in conjunction with the interviews, the community meeting and the survey.

Niemi says, “our friends at MTU had an engineering student who needed to do a senior project, so they did a site assessment and system design for us.  The final report included how we’d build the PV array and where we would actually put it.”  The senior’s class project is now being used in conjunction with a request for proposals that’s being sent out to local PV contractors to help put a cost on setting up a 100 kW community solar system.

“The biggest challenge for us now is determining the financial model that will work well for all the stakeholders. We want to make sure the program design will work for both the utility and the customers.  There are a lot of details from the community survey to evaluate,” said Niemi.

WPPI, MTU and WUPPDR are following the same sequence of tasks in the village of Baraga as the interviews with the community leaders and the survey design is already complete.

WPPI’s long-term goal with the project is coming up with a template for replicating how community solar can be delivered to low-to-moderate income customers.

Niemi says, “We want to complete the feasibility studies, implement the systems, and create playbook and document our work so we can leverage it with other public power utilities.”  

Michele Suddleson, director of the DEED program for the Association said, “The WPPI team did a great job in leveraging multiple resources including the DEED grant, to create a viable project to bring the benefits of solar to customers who otherwise wouldn’t be able to affordably access this clean energy resource.”