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Lake Michigan’s Largest Island Explores Community Solar

Beaver Island’s roughly 600 permanent residents are hoping to improve energy efficiencies of homes and buildings and figure out how to generate their own solar energy. Currently the island relies on mainland power and an oil-powered backup generator.

Whiskey Point on Beaver Island
Whiskey Point on Beaver Island, Friday, July 21, 2023.
(Garret Ellison | MLive)
A community solar project is in the works on Lake Michigan’s largest island.

Beaver Island’s two townships are exploring the feasibility of building solar power generation to provide electricity for the island’s roughly 600 year-round residents and the thousands who visit during the summer tourism season. The overall goals are better energy security and transition away from fossil fuels.

A federal technical assistance grant and expert advice from university researchers are helping to both improve energy efficiencies at homes and other buildings across the island and figure out the best way to generate solar energy on the island – 32 miles away from mainland Lower Michigan.

“Our power now is coming from the mainland, and it’s coming out on underground cable,” said Seamus Norgaard, a summer resident on Beaver Island and director of the island-focused educational nonprofit Tara’s Meadow.

“There were two years when that underground cable broke. It failed in 1983 because a barge anchor basically hit it and ripped it up. And then new cables were laid, but they had a failure in 1999.”

Norgaard said Beaver Island maintains a 3-megawatt backup generator, but it runs on fuel oil. Only burning coal emits more greenhouse gases.

“And really, islanders want to be energy independent and energy reliable,” he said.

Beaver Island last year received a federal technical assistance grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to look at the feasibility of renewable energy production and storage on the remote island in northern Lake Michigan.

The island also hosted researchers and students from Michigan Technological University to assess possible locations for a solar field, along with possible public building rooftop sites.

There would be incredible benefits for community solar in such a far-flung, rural location, said Jay Meldrum, executive director of the Michigan Tech Traverse City Research Center.

“People that benefit by community solar are people who live in the community as far as, if they own the panels, they get the energy,” the MTU professor said. “You can’t do this on your own. You can’t put up energy and sell it to people. It’s just against the law in Michigan to do it. But you can put them up on your own building like a church, like a municipal building.”

Meldrum said he expects the federal recommendation for Beaver Island to be a community solar project on the rooftops of those types of community and public buildings.

Federal energy officials awarded the technical assistance grant for Beaver Island at the same time as 11 other island communities.

U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm – a former Michigan governor – said the efforts on the various islands are part of the effort to drive the nation’s equitable transition to a net-zero economy.

“As climate change intensifies, remote and island communities, which experience higher energy costs and may lack the financial resources and expertise to make their energy systems more resilient, are more at risk to extreme weather events,” Granholm said in a statement.

Great Lakes Energy Cooperative is the electricity provider for Beaver Island. Officials at the distribution co-op said they ensure safe interconnection when electric generation happens elsewhere than from its regular energy provider, whether individual rooftop solar panels or bigger projects.

“For larger community-based instances, like the project on Beaver Island, we will do our part to support at the points of interconnection and rely on the expertise of the project owners and electricians to ensure a safe and efficient system is in place,” said Brett Streby, Great Lakes Energy’s communications director, in an email.

Meanwhile, Meldrum said he is eager to present information about various community solar options at next year’s Beaver Island Sustainability Fair, an annual event hosted by Tara’s Meadow.

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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