This project gave Lapeer bragging rights

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For Lapeer Mayor William Sprague, deciding to partner with DTE Energy to build the largest solar array in Michigan within the city limits was a straight-forward decision to make.

“My belief is that we’re put on earth to do something and that’s to leave it better than we found it,” he said during a recent interview on the Empowering Michigan podcast.

With a project the size of the Lapeer solar array, almost 250 acres, Sprague along with Lapeer City manager Dale Kerbyson, received some questions about land use from area residents.  One thing both stressed is that using land within the city limits to build the solar park was not at the expense of other projects. Instead, it has given Lapeer the chance to shine in the national spotlight as home to one of the largest solar arrays east of the Mississippi river.

To hear our full conversation, click on the media player below:

Podcast transcript:

David Lingholm:  [00:07] Welcome to the “Empowering Michigan” podcast. I’m your host, David Lingholm.

[00:10] About a year ago DTE Energy broke ground on the largest utility‑owned solar array east of the Mississippi River, in the city Lapeer, which is about 25 minutes east of Flint. Mayor Bill Sprague commented then that he was proud of Lapeer’s contribution to renewable energy.

[00:26] The array has since started producing energy, actually back in May. Mayor Sprague remains bullish on his city’s contribution to renewable energy in Michigan.

[00:39] I had the chance to catch up with Mayor Sprague and Lapeer City Manager, Dale Kerbyson, to talk about that commitment, and how it’s impacted the conversation about Lapeer, and about renewable energy in the state of Michigan.

[00:52] I’d like to start, Mayor Sprague, by asking a quick question. At the groundbreaking for the solar array ‑‑ it’s hard to believe it’s been a little over a year ago ‑‑ you said, “We are proud of Lapeer’s contribution to bringing more green energy to Michigan, and to creating a cleaner environment for our community and for the state.”

[01:12] Why was that an important commitment for you to make a year ago?

Mayor William Sprague:  [01:20] Basically, because it’s my belief that we’re put on this earth to do something, and that is to leave it better than what we found it.

[01:34] Maybe being 62 years old, and looking to the probably fewer years in the future than what I have in the past, you start reflecting on some things about what can you do or what kind of mark can you leave on this world that will not only impact your children, but in my case my grandchild.

[01:59] I saw this as an opportunity. It’s the right thing to do for our community and for the Earth, itself, moving forward. Without sounding too liberal, or anything, that’s what we need to do.

David:  [02:19] Now that the solar array is producing electricity, how has the community embraced the project? I’ll open it up to either one of you.

[02:30] How’s the community embraced this project? What kind of feedback are you getting?

Mayor Sprague:  [02:34] Generally speaking, I think the community, in general, has been very accepting of the project itself. Obviously, there’s some initial things that DTE and your folks have done a nice job, gone above and beyond the call of duty for those residents and non‑residents that may not have been happy with it at first.

[03:03] Generally speaking, I think that those people, or the negative comments that we tend to get today, are those people who are still not informed about it. They tend to look at it as a matter of choices, where they said, “OK, you went out and used 300 acres to put solar farms on, versus creating jobs.”

[03:26] In our particular case, land is not something we lack, so it’s not a choice of this or this. It is a choice, “Hey, we can do this and this.”

[03:40] If we have opportunities for manufacturing jobs and other development, we can do that, too. It’s still a matter of us getting out there, and continuing to educate the people.

[03:55] Generally speaking, it not only has been an extremely positive thing for our local residents, but also it is probably one of the biggest hits that we’ve had nationwide over the Facebook and social media comments regarding little Lapeer leading the league [laughs] , as far as solar array east of the Mississippi.

[04:28] It’s been “Wall Street Journal” and various other publications. Correct, Dale?

Dale Kerbyson:  [04:35] Yeah, I get a lot of comments from my colleagues across the state that are interested in how it’s affected the community, how is it received, what can they do to make their community more open and receiving to a solar project. It’s becoming well known.

[04:58] As it’s just come online, I assume there’ll be more, and more, and more recognition of it. Because as I talk to people who call the city or stop me and ask about it, they are surprised at the amount of energy that it generates and how long it will do that at no real additional cost. That it’s an ongoing self‑maintaining, basically, project.

David:  [05:29] I never thought about the project, though, in terms of the attention that it would give to Lapeer. That’s a really interesting angle.

[05:37] Dale, one of the things that Mayor Sprague brought up was this is a conservative community. What’s some of the effort that was done to educate people in the first place about having the benefits of this, but also, then, afterwards? I’m sure that people still have a lot of questions about what’s happening with…

[05:59] [crosstalk]

Dale:  [05:59] What was interesting when we were doing our preparation for the project, we had to rezone some of the property. The property was zoned farming, but we needed to move it a little bit the range of farming or construction for factories. That indicator, or that section of the zoning ordinance that implied the use of a utility.

[06:34] When I was explaining it to people I said, “Really, it is a farming activity.” We couldn’t go into a lot of detail, because it was a confidential project at that point.

[06:46] That’s exactly what it is. It’s a solar farm. It has zero impact on the community. We did that.

[06:52] Educationally, one of the things I wanted to make sure I mentioned was that a big component of this project, when we were working with DTE in our partnership, was that we wanted to have an educational component that would show the citizens, show visitors exactly what is happening in the solar field.

[07:14] Why it’s there. What it does. The equivalent activity of a coal plant or a nuclear plant. Exactly what’s going on in the solar field.

[07:27] We worked together to come up with a display that there is a mini‑solar array right on our walking path, right by the local schools, the middle schools, and the community college, where they can easily walk over and see it. The citizens can walk by and read about what our solar array is doing, how it’s producing energy, how it enters the grid, and so on.

[07:55] That’s something that’ll be there for many, many years. It’ll continue to promote green energy and environmental awareness with our kids and our citizens for years.

David:  [08:07] While I’m sure that’s helped, especially afterwards, that additional awareness of what it can do for the community, I’m sure that’s helped ease some of the discussions afterward, also.

Dale:  [08:19] Sure. Again, one of the things that we want to do in promoting the array across the state is to invite schools and school districts to come and see the mini‑array, and show them how they can educate their kids, and so on, on solar technology.

[08:41] There is another environmentally friendly component right under the tunnel, right next to the path. There’s a whole series of environmental things right there for kids to learn from. It’s a perfect addition to the site.

David:  [08:59] It is hard to miss when you’re driving along 69.

Dale:  [09:02] It’s even more impressive from the air.

David:  [09:06] I’m sure.

Dale:  [09:06] Flying over it, it looks like two brand new lakes inside the city of Lapeer. They’re each about 300 acres. It’s a pretty sizeable project, and we’re hoping to do more.

David:  [09:20] That leads into my last question. When it comes to creating the cleaner environment, what’s the next step? What’s the next iteration of this for the city of Lapeer?

Mayor Sprague:  [09:36] It’s a continued embracing of the green concepts, in my mind, and convincing people. Lapeer is a very conservative community. If this project can do so well within this community, think of what it can do throughout the state, throughout the nation. There’s this huge opportunity.

[10:01] Individually, here we can continue. We just talked recently that maybe there’s some things that we can do to encourage personal investment in the city, like we have a Building Department.

[10:16] Part of what we can do is if you go to put a new furnace in, or you go to put a new water heater in, or if you put insulation, or windows, or anything in that could improve your energy efficiency, not only do they got to pay to have that contracted, but they’ve got to pay for a building permit.

[10:38] Maybe a temporary or a renaissance zone created on those energy‑saving improvements, where the residents either no longer have to pay for that building permit, or they pay a reduced rate, or something. You encourage investment, so we’re not an impediment to encouraging investment on that.

[11:04] Again, we are open to any type of partnership with any of the utility companies that they may want to try out. We’ve showed we’re willing to take a chance and do some things.

[11:21] If there are any other projects that DTE or any other utility company would like to try, we’re more than willing to be your guinea pig, so to say, and get out there in front of there.

David:  [11:36] You’re a willing partner.

Mayor Sprague:  [11:37] We’re a willing partner. It’s been a great partnership. We would like to expand it, if possible.

Dale:  [11:42] It has been a great partnership with DTE. We currently do many things at the city level, green things. We recycle metal, paper, tires, batteries.

[11:57] We did a really extensive energy efficiency analysis about eight years ago, and spent a million and a half dollars upgrading our facilities to be more energy efficient.

[12:10] That goes along with what the mayor said, that we will be looking at an opportunity for the citizens or businesses to, in fact, invest in green technology, and potentially be able to do that at no cost at the city level.

[12:29] We are always open for more pilot projects. We have really enjoyed the partnership with DTE. It’s been very successful for both of us.

[12:41] We did a streetlight replacement. We got rid of all of our old high‑power streetlights and replaced them with LED, in partnership with DTE. That went great. We’re looking at another project.

[12:57] Those things, not only are they great for the environment, but they have a significant financial benefit, because the payoff was about three years on the streetlights for their cost, and now they’re saving us money every single day.

David:  [13:14] I know it might be a sizeable chunk upfront, but that seems to be a pretty quick payoff period for something like that.

Dale:  [13:22] Three to five years.

[13:24] [background music]

David:  [13:23] Thank you, both, for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Mayor Sprague:  [13:28] Thanks, David.