It used to be cost and technology that made an off-the-grid golf course out of the question.
The biggest challenge today is keeping the solar panels out of the way of errant golf shots.
Northport Creek Golf Course, a ninehole, par 35 course opening in Leelanau County, will be the first 100 percent solar course in Michigan and just one of a handful in the country.
“It was an interesting design project – it was their challenge and our challenge to find a location where [the solar panels] wouldn’t be hit by golf balls, or at least very rarely,” said Leelanau Solar partner Steve Smiley.
BETTER AND LESS EXPENSIVE
Solar is taking off in Northern Michigan because panels have become less expensive and more efficient.
Smiley, who has worked in renewable energy since the 1970s, said solar has transformed from an environmental statement to a viable alternative.
He said panels that cost $5 per watt five years ago cost a dollar per watt today.
“Everybody says they’re interested in solar, but it’s not until they see the money that they get really interested,” Smiley said.
In the past three years solar panel efficiency has also improved 10 to 15 percent, Leelanau Solar owner Tom Gallery said.
“Solar is getting better and better,” Gallery said. “No big technical breakthroughs – just small, incremental improvements.”
Northport Creek owner Bill Collins opted for solar because he wants to make the golf course self-sustaining.
The hope is that it will be donated to the village as an income source, Gallery said.
“He called me and asked, ‘Can you make a golf course sustainable with solar?’ and I said sure, and so we did,” he said.
WHAT 100 PERCENT MEANS
The Northport Creek solar project should pay for itself in seven or eight years, Gallery said.
After that, it will be a golf course without an electric bill.
“To me, that’s just dollars and sense,” he said. “You say, ‘Hey, you want to have no electric bill in 10 years?’ Here’s how you do it.”
Solar energy will power irrigation, the pump house, the clubhouse, and charge the golf carts.
Gallery said he was able to estimate the course’s energy requirements because his company conducted a study last year that measured energy usage at Mistwood Golf Course.
Solar power cannot keep the fairways trimmed, however.
The lawnmowers will run on gasoline because electric mowers powerful enough to handle greenskeeper duties do not exist, Gallery said.
The “100 percent” tag comes from an energy offset – the solar array will produce more electricity than the golf course will use. Excess energy will be sold back to the grid.
“We over-produce enough that you could make the case that we’ve made it net-zero, because we’ve offset the amount of gasoline we use on the course.” Gallery said.
Northport Creek is one of numerous solar projects underway in Northern Michigan.
Gallery said his company already has enough demand to keep them busy for the next year.
Like the golf course, residential customers now want solar to be the central power source for their home, not a supplemental source.
“Just about every job we do, we target 100 percent of their energy consumption,” Smiley said.
Smiley believes the state should make it easier for people who own solar panels to sell the electricity back to the grid.
Bigger players are also getting into solar. Consumers Energy announced July 1 that they had selected 22 solar projects across the Lower Peninsula as part of their Experimental Advanced Renewable Program. The program enables participants to sell excess energy back to Consumers.
The program seeks to make 10 percent of the company’s energy output renewable by next year.
Among the businesses signed up is TV personality Carter Oosterhouse’s Bonobo Winery on Old Mission Peninsula.
‘LESS OF AN EYESORE’
Solar may be taking off in the region, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t resistance. A patchwork of rules determines whether solar projects are possible and what they will look like from township to township.
The obstacles Gallery encountered when he embarked on the installation of a solar array on M-72 in Solon Township for Light of Day Organics, which had received a 25 percent USDA grant for the project, surprised him.
“They decided they didn’t like the looks of these things,” Gallery said of the township planning commission. “They said, ‘You can’t do that. We have an architectural review.’”
Even though Light of Day is located in a business corridor already populated with pole barns and industrial businesses, the solar project at Light of Day was challenged on aesthetic grounds.
“It was a complete surprise,” Gallery said.
“We went in there thinking, Solon Township – they’ve got gravel pits; they’ve got all kinds of crazy stuff.”
The project was delayed three months, scaled back from 14,000kW to 10,000kW, and moved 100 feet further from the highway.
Township planning commission member Tom Christensen said he has no problem with solar and in most cases projects would not run into problems.
“The only thing I was concerned about was the back of the panel was going to face M-72,” Christensen said. “I just asked them to make it less of an eyesore.”