Local Government:City of Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township, Michigan
Project:24 MW Wheeler Center Solar Park
Category:Aggregation, Community Solar, Partnerships and Collaborations
To deploy 24 MW of solar on a closed landfill and the surrounding area to advance both the City of Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Townships’ goals of powering the local energy grid with 100% renewable energy.
In June 2020, the city of Ann Arbor, Michigan, adopted one of the nation’s most ambitious community climate action plans, A2ZERO. Made up of seven strategies and 44 actions, the A2ZERO plan’s goal is to achieve a just transition to community-wide carbon neutrality by 2030. The first strategy in A2ZERO is powering the community with 100% renewable energy, despite the city’s grid mix being just 11% renewable in 2020.
One of the overarching values of A2ZERO is to focus on local, community-led renewable energy projects that prioritize frontline populations. This means local solar installations, and community solar in particular, are a key component of the City’s clean energy strategy. However, like most growing cities, Ann Arbor lacks available undeveloped greenfield sites to accommodate medium and large renewable projects. Instead, the City decided to look for creative alternatives to greenfield sites and focused on a large, vacant property that had limited economic redevelopment opportunities: a capped and closed landfill. To work toward its clean energy goals, the City set goals to install 11 MW of local community solar and deploy a utility-scale landfill solar project.
The Wheeler Service Center is 70-acre landfill site that has a high potential for solar and conveniently abuts a power line from DTE Energy, the utility that serves Ann Arbor and the surrounding area. This allows the project to easily connect into the utility’s power grid. The project will ultimately provide 24 MW of solar power — enough to power roughly 5,000 homes.
While the property is within the jurisdiction of Ann Arbor, a portion of the site required planning and zoning approval from the neighboring Pittsfield Township, which had coincidentally been trying to install a solar array in its community. Together, the City of Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township agreed on the designs, parameters, and engagement approaches necessary to advance the project. It was decided that DTE should procure, own, operate, and maintain the asset. Once complete, this project will be one of the largest landfill solar projects in the country.
How was the deal structured?
Community solar is not enabled in Michigan law, making it fully up to the discretion of the utility to move the project forward. DTE Energy at the time wasn’t interested in community solar programs. Despite Ann Arbor, Pittsfield, and other stakeholders’ efforts, no legislative progress on community solar has happened to date. The City then pivoted and formally intervened in DTE Energy’s voluntary green pricing program and proposed the creation of a pilot community solar program in which the City of Ann Arbor would serve as the anchor tenant, agreeing to purchase all energy produced at a given site (the landfill) if no other individuals subscribed. The utility agreed and Wheeler Center Solar Park is now DTE Energy’s first community solar pilot.
The solar installation was originally sized to help Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township reach their goals of powering municipal operations with 100% renewable energy. Pittsfield will be the first subscriber and purchase enough energy to offset all of its municipal electricity usage with renewable energy. However, the Ann Arbor Wheeler Center Solar Park will be listed and available for subscriptions to residents through DTE Energy’s MIGreenPower Program. Subscribers will pay to participate but will also receive a credit back on their utility bill based on the value solar is sold for on the market. To ensure that low-income households can participate, a portion of subscriptions will be set aside with a special enrollment option. Specifically, low-income participants will not have to pay the cost of the subscription but will receive the energy credit on their bills as well as the renewable energy credits associated with their portion of the subscription. Detailed pricing is still being finalized. The MIGreenPower program currently has subscriptions from the University of Michigan, Washtenaw Community College, Ann Arbor SPARK, small businesses, and more than 6,000 residential customers.
What were Ann Arbor and Pittsfield’s biggest challenges in setting up this project?
Working within the bounds of utility solar options. Ann Arbor is served by a vertically integrated utility, DTE Energy. This regulatory structure, along with a fully capped green tariff program and limitations for off-site PPAs, left the City with limited options for large-scale contracts to make significant steps toward their renewable energy goals. Ann Arbor had to get creative to find workarounds to meet its renewable energy goals.
Developing on a Regulated Landfill. Solar developments can be complicated but developing on a regulated capped landfill can make the process even more complicated. Working through requirements related to the cap on the landfill, vegetation management, species management, easements and land use policies, soil and testing, environmental remediation, and multi-jurisdictional coordination made this project extremely complicated.
What advice would Ann Arbor and Pittsfield give other local governments as they pursue climate action projects?
Push through the tape. There will be resistance to keep things the way they are, but keeping the status quo is not going to help us address the climate crisis. Stakeholders serious about a just transition to a decarbonized future need to be prepared to persevere, to challenge existing systems, to think in new ways, and to find ways to cut through the innumerable “no’s” you’ll hear to find a path to “yes.” Ann Arbor continuously talks about the project, frames the project purposely to get people excited about a landfill becoming an opportunity for the community, and is unfaltering in its commitment to see the project move forward.
How does this project fit into Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township’s broader climate and community goals?
The project supports the City of Ann Arbor and Pittsfield Township’s goals of powering the local grid with 100% clean and renewable energy while simultaneously reducing greenhouse gas emissions associated with fossil fuel energy use. Pittsfield Township will offset all of its municipal energy use with its subscription to this community solar project. Individual residential or business customers of DTE Energy are also able to subscribe to the project to receive clean power and offset their emissions. The City of Ann Arbor will buy any clean energy that is not subscribed to by other customers. As an added benefit of this project being a community solar initiative, customers who are unable to install solar energy on their roof (including renters, or residents and businesses with limited solar potential) will have access from solar energy, advancing the equity goals of A2ZERO.
Additional Information and Resources
- A2ZERO (Ann Arbor’s Living Carbon Neutrality Plan)
- Ann Arbor & Pittsfield Municipal Landfill Solar Project Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs about the solar project)
- Wheeler Center Solar Farm PUD (Pittsfield Township’s announcement about the project)
- DTE Energy and local communities move forward with first-of-its-kind community solar project in Washtenaw County (DTE Energy press release about the project)
- The Future of Landfills is Bright (RMI report about landfill solar)
- Michigan landfill to host 20 MW community solar array (News article)
- DTE Energy plans community solar project atop Michigan landfill (News article)
- Procurement Guidance – Community Solar (Renewables Accelerator guidance resource)
This project was included on the Renewables Accelerator’s list: 10 of the Most Noteworthy Local Government Renewables Deals of 2021.