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Two local solar farms take different paths

ESCANABA — While a solar power plant has been built in Escanaba and another has been proposed in Escanaba Township, public reactions to these initiatives have varied dramatically.

In recent months, efforts to adopt official guidelines for solar energy facilities in Escanaba Township and Orion Renewable Energy Group’s plans to develop a solar energy farm in the township have been met with significant pushback from local residents. An ad hoc committee was formed late last year to discuss the future of solar power in the township; the committee is expected to share its findings with the Escanaba Township Planning Commission by March 2.

Meanwhile, City of Escanaba Electric Superintendent Mike Furmanski said a solar farm at the Delta County Airport has not attracted much — if any — controversy since it was installed in the summer of 2018.

“I can’t remember one complaint on our solar garden out at the airport,” he said.

According to Furmanski, one factor that may help to explain this is the fact that the Escanaba solar farm is much smaller than the facility in Escanaba Township would be.

“I think the size of the project is a big difference-maker,” he said.

About eight acres of land are being used for the solar farm at the Delta County Airport. In contrast, Orion stated the fenced-in area for the Escanaba Township solar farm would be under 830 acres at a joint meeting of the Escanaba Township Board and the Escanaba Township Planning Commission in September 2019.

Furmanski also noted the Escanaba solar farm’s location may play a role.

“No one can see our project from their house,” he said.

He had no comment on the Escanaba Township proposal.

“I don’t want to wade into that, because it’s not my project,” Furmanski said.

Furmanski did share some information on how the solar farm in Escanaba has been doing. As of its one-year anniversary, the facility had generated 91.4 percent of the energy the electric department had estimated it would.

“The actual energy output so far hasn’t been what we expected,” he said.

Fortunately, this was mitigated by the fact that avoided costs were higher than expected. The solar farm saved the electric department $84,622 in energy costs and $18,013 in transmission service costs in its first year.

“We’ll take that as a win, I guess,” Furmanski said.

Furmanski also touched on plans to expand the Escanaba solar farm. He noted the electric department had initially wanted construction work for the expansion project to begin in the summer of 2019, but the FAA did not approve the project until mid-August. By then, the contractor for the project was booked through the end of the year.

“We’re hoping this spring to start the construction on the expansion,” he said.

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