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Consumers Energy asks agricultural communities to help with solar power land needs

A solar farm developed by Cypress Creek Renewables
Cypress Creek Renewables
Large-scale solar requires a lot of land — as many as 1,500 acres per solar power plant.

Consumers Energy needs land. Lots of land.

The utility is planning a massive expansion of its solar energy capacity by the year 2040.

That may require locating as many as 70,000 acres of land, mostly farmland, to site the plants.

Dennis Dobbs is vice president of enterprise project management and environmental services for Consumers Energy.

He said large-scale solar is a good opportunity for farming families in transition.

"Maybe the younger generations are no longer wanting to continue to farm," he said. "This is a good avenue to keep that property in the family, and generate revenues for the family."

For local municipalities, which issue permits for solar plants, the enticement is an increase in tax revenues.

But in some communities, residents have objected to large-scale solar projects because of the aesthetic changes to the rural landscape.

Dobbs said finding this much land, especially land close to grid infrastructure, will be a challenge.

But he said the intangible attraction for those that welcome solar plants to their communities is the chance to provide carbon-free electricity for people across the state.

"We're going to need their help," he said of agricultural communities. "We're just not going to be able to make this goal happen on our own."

The tax benefit of solar for local units of government may not be the lure it once was, however, if the Michigan Tax Tribunal treats the value of solar plants similarly to wind parks.

The State Tax Commission suddenly changed the depreciation table for wind turbines in 2011. The Tax Commission's move dramatically lowered the amount of tax revenue that many local units of government had built into their future budgets.

Since then, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy have filed hundreds of tax appeals before the Michigan Tax Tribunal over the depreciation in the value of wind turbines.

Attorneys representing the municipalities that are fighting the tax appeals say the Tax Commission may also apply similar depreciation tables to solar, as solar expands across the state.

Dobbs said Consumers Energy aims to be transparent with local governments about the revenue they can expect if they agree to issue permits for renewable energy projects.

But he said the utility also needs to ensure the cost of the projects is as low as possible, to protect energy customers.

Consumers Energy is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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