A significant boost to DTE’s solar generation capacity

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In the spring of 2016, DTE Energy broke ground on its Lapeer Solar Park, which was at the time the largest solar array east of the Mississippi River. Now that the 200,000-panel solar park is in operation, solar energy makes up 7% of DTE’s renewable energy generation portfolio. Said another way, DTE’s solar projects can produce enough clean energy to power 14,000 homes.

Why did DTE take on a project of this scope when its previous solar arrays were much smaller? Why is this project so important to DTE?

In this podcast, DTE employees Dave Harwood, director of Renewable Energy, and Carla Gribbs, regional manager, Corporate and Government Affairs, talk about what this project means for DTE and how the company partnered with the city of Lapeer to build the largest solar park in Michigan.

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

Having trouble listening to the podcast? Here is the full transcript of our conversation:

David Lingholm:  [00:06] DTE Energy recently started generating electricity from the largest solar array in Michigan, which we’ve built in the city of Lapeer. When the ground broke on the project, it was significantly larger than any other solar project the company had built.

[00:20] I recently caught up with Dave Harwood, Director of Renewable Energy, and Carla Gribbs, the regional manager for corporate and government affairs for DTE Energy to talk a little bit more about the project.

[00:32] We dug into the size of the project, why it was important for the company to take on a project like this, how it’s going to help the company meet the target of an 80 percent reduction in carbon emissions by the year 2050, and what DTE employees are doing to support the City of Lapeer now that the project is over.

[00:54] In the year and a half that I’ve been at DTE, we’ve gone from having smaller solar projects to announcing this, what was at the time the largest solar project east of the Mississippi right here in the City of Lapeer.

[01:10] I’m wondering, from your perspective, what precipitated that change? Why was it necessary to make the leap from the smaller projects to something that giant, that size?

Dave Harwood:  [01:22] That’s a good question. Early on, as we were building our renewable portfolio at DTE in an effort to comply with Michigan’s 10 percent renewable portfolio standard, we were building predominantly wind projects.

[01:37] Wind has always been a more economic way to generate renewable energy in Michigan, at least through today. We did want to get our toe in the water, if you will, on solar. We had done almost 30 small projects, one two megawatts, or something of them even less than that, as you mentioned.

[02:02] Solar costs had gotten to the point where they were getting close to wind, and we really wanted to understand what it would take to do something really big, what kind of economies of scale can we achieve, and can we do solar for as cheap as wind energy in Michigan?

[02:17] One of the things we learned was that yeah, there are economies of scale from going from one 2 megawatt size projects up to 50, but not yet enough to get to the cost of wind in Michigan.

[02:31] David: When a project like that, the thing that strikes you when you drive by on I‑69 is just the enormity of it. It’s not a small project. For a city government like Lapeer, that’s got to be a pretty big commitment. What was that conversation like?

Carla Gribbs:  [02:51] The city had its own interests. The mayor, Mayor Bill Sprague, the city manager, Dale Kerbyson, were very interested in Lapeer being on the forefront of renewables, of being a green city. With that, there was this partnership formed.

[03:07] They were interested. They had some property. We were interested. We needed a big piece of land. 250 acres, I think, is what the Lapeer solar array ended up being.

[03:19] They cared about the future of their community enough to say, “We want it to be a green community. We want it to be filled with renewables, and support that.” It was a great partnership that was established between the two.

[03:32] David: It seems it came online right as the company was also making this commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by, what, the year 2050. That’s a pretty aggressive goal. For either you, Carla, or you, Dave, how do you see that working with municipalities and using renewable sources fitting into that overall goal?

[03:59] Dave: The renewable portfolio at DTE is going to grow significantly to achieve that aspiration, that 80 percent target that we’ve set out there in 2050. Probably the biggest transformation this company’s seen in its over hundred‑year history, especially with respect to how we generate electricity.

[04:22] We have about a thousand megawatts of renewable online today, predominantly wind. Over 900 megawatts of that is wind, and now about 65 megawatts of solar, and then a smattering of biomass and landfill gas projects.

[04:37] Wind has been the cheapest way to go. The Lapeer project is certainly going to be a piece of that. It feels really big to us now, that 50 megawatts of solar. As you said, at least when we started, one of the biggest projects in the Eastern US.

[04:55] By the time we get to 80 percent carbon reduction, what that means is another 4,000 megawatts of renewables on top of the thousand that we already have. As we look into the crystal ball going out into the future, there will be a way, we think, when solar actually does become cheaper than wind.

[05:15] It’s really important for us to have done this project, gotten our feet wet. All the lessons learned, we can now apply, and we are ready. We’re going to continue to build wind until the day comes when solar is a cheaper way to go. Then you’ll see us transition over to more solar at that point.

[05:34] David: Carla, now that the Lapeer project is completed, for the City of Lapeer, how are they embracing the project? I know that they were wanting to cast their name out there as a leader in green technology and in green energy. How has this helped them?

[05:56] Carla: I think because we’ve had such a great partnership, a couple things. I think it’s helped them put the city on the map, if you will. They are very proud of it. What, there’s 11,000 residential homes that can be served, if you will, by when the energy goes from the solar park to our grid.

[06:19] That’s significantly bigger than the city itself. They’re very proud. They use it as a hallmark. We did recognize their commission and their planning commission just this week for their partnership. I have to say that, with any construction project, there’s often little hiccups.

[06:41] The building department, the planning department, the fire department, all those employees that worked, I think that collectively, they understood the enormity, as you said, of the project, and they can feel very proud of the fact that they helped make this a reality.

[06:59] As we pour this wonderful solar energy into our grid, they’re a part of it, and they’re very excited about it.

[07:07] David: What’s the next big project for the renewable side, Dave?

[07:12] Dave: As you probably know, Michigan did have a 10 percent renewable portfolio standard. That was enacted back in 2008, and had basically a target or a deadline of 2015 to reach that. We did, and actually exceeded that. The Lapeer project…

[07:30] David: I was going to say, to Lapeer project probably pushed you right over that edge.

[07:35] Dave: The Lapeer project was actually a project that was done in excess of the 10 percent. We had already achieved the 10 percent by the time we did the Lapeer solar project.

[07:42] The nice thing about that project was that, since it was above and beyond what was required, it allowed us additional renewable that we’ve now used to create a voluntarily renewable tariff for all of our customers, My Green Power, that allows customers to sign up for more than 10 percent, if they want.

[08:01] It’ll be sourced off of solar projects like Lapeer, and then actually a wind project that we did in excess of the 10 percent as well. Going forward now next, at the end of 2016, Michigan passed a new law. Now, we have a 15 percent renewable portfolio standard to meet by 2021.

[08:22] While Lapeer will remain available for the My Green Power voluntarily program, we already have two wind projects ‑‑ one coming in 2018, another in 2019 ‑‑ that’ll get us about halfway there. Then an additional two projects, probably out in the 2021, 2022 time frame, that’ll get us to the 15 percent. We’ll be filing a more detailed plan on this with our public service commission in January.

[08:56] David: I’m wondering what were some of the things that we learned as a company that will help us related to local governments like Lapeer a little bit more when it comes to projects like a solar array of this size?

[09:17] Carla: I think one of the things that we pride ourselves on is being very transparent about and open about what it is we’re building, why we’re building it, and reaching out to individuals, be they residents, businesses in the community, or government officials, about answering and addressing any of their concerns or issues.

[09:50] Early on, there were some neighbors. They actually technically aren’t even in the city where we built the solar array, but they’re right adjacent to the solar array. They had some concerned. We addressed their concerns early on in the project.

[10:06] The city was very helpful in us working together, making sure that we could use local businesses in the project where we could. We have learned that it’s important to listen. It’s important to be out there early on.

[10:24] Like I said, no construction project goes without its hiccups. It’s important to keep that communication open.

[10:30] David: It’s interesting that you say, Carla, that listening, being there early, and being involved with the city government and with the residents early was a big takeaway to this. That’s also a really big thing for our employees, is being involved in the communities where we live and serve.

[10:52] It’s not just something that sounds good on our corporate citizenship report, but we really take that seriously.

[10:58] Carla: Yes, we do. At DTE, we are in it for the long haul. We’ve been around over a hundred years. We’re not going anywhere. When we come in as a developer of any kind of facility, we do not just come in, build the facility, and walk away.

[11:18] Our employees on the overall long term are often involved in community organizations like we are in Lapeer, the rotary, the chamber of commerce. We support things like the farmer’s market and the center for the arts, things like that.

[11:35] When we do come in as a developer, we also get our employees and our contractors involved in projects to support the community. For example, the city came to us and said they were building a bike path adjacent, actually right across the street from our solar array.

[11:50] Could we help them on a day, really dig some dirt, and make this bike path a reality? We did. We had our contractors out there. We had employees out there, and really made a difference that the community was looking for support from.

[12:03] In addition, we also put up an educational solar array. Along the bike path, another path near our solar array. Children, schoolchildren, anybody walking in the park can see and learn about how does solar work. They can actually see a panel right up front. It’s not working, but it’s visual.

[12:26] There’s a whole history and a whole explanation of why we’re collecting solar, where it goes to, and how does it get onto the grid.

[12:34] David: If I remember correctly, that seems to be something that the mayor and the city manager are really excited about, because it helps involve the entire community.

[12:43] Carla: Right, and it shows the community that there’s benefit to them, and it’s there for the long term. Again, DTE doesn’t just show up, like some developers, and walk away. We’re there. We’re going to be there for the long haul.

[12:54] We enjoy putting things in that improve the quality of life, like information pieces along a park pathway. One other thing we did is that we actually provided a special solar education program to elementary and middle school students in the Lapeer school district.

[13:13] We had that go to a few different schools. It was very well‑received, again, teaching individuals of young age, students, about what it’s so important that renewables is part of our generation.

[13:26] David: Hopefully, it sparks a couple of future engineers and scientists, because we know that that’s definitely a big need in our communities.

[13:35] Carla: Piquing their curiosity, and also at the same time, letting them know that boy, in their back yard, look what’s here, and this is why it’s here.

[13:41] [background music]

[13:42] David: Again, thank you both for your time today. I really appreciate the opportunity to catch up.

[13:49] Dave: Absolutely, thank you.

[13:51] Carla: Thank you.