BAD AXE – As Huron County wraps up its master plan, officials are getting closer to forming policy on commercial solar energy.
The Huron County Planning Commission discussed the role of large-scale solar development and renewable energy in the county’s future this week at a master plan workshop.
A Huron County survey by the Spicer Group last fall showed that 73 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with solar energy development.
But officials wondered if the people were in support of small-scale, private development, rather than large-scale commercial development, as the survey did not distinguish between the two.
“This is a general question, just to get a sense of what’s going on,” said Alan Bean, of the Spicer Group in Saginaw.
More information on the issue will be obtained at a Michigan Townships Association workshop on solar energy development that Huron planners will attend Aug. 9.
After that, Bean will meet again with planners to determine solar policy for the Huron County Master Plan at the next workshop to be scheduled at the commission’s Aug. 2 meeting.
For now, moratoriums are in effect on solar and wind energy development.
The solar moratorium is contingent on completion of the master plan, as well production of an ordinance governing commercial solar development.
The wind energy moratorium is in effect until Jan. 18, 2018, or until all issues pertaining to various wind energy-related referendums are resolved. This could be soon.
On Aug. 8, voters in Sherman Township will determine whether to become self-zoned – a proposal voters on May 2 defeated various wind development issues in Huron County, some with a margin of 2 to 1.
The ITC Michigan Thumb Loop that goes through Huron County is used to export electricity from the Thumb area.
It’s carrying 27 percent of its capacity, according to a conversation among planners at the Bylaws Committee meeting preceding the workshop.
Jeff Smith, county building and zoning director, said the renewable portion is at 18 percent.
This comes from wind turbines – hundreds of which are located throughout Huron County. It is expected that a state record of 473 turbines will be standing by year’s end.
But it’s not only wind turbines that are supplying electricity to the grid.
“The power plants tie in to it,” Smith said. “It’s not just wind, it’s all sources of energy production.”
Some officials believe that one day, the state could mandate more wind development in Huron County because the loop.
“They’re not going to let that (the ITC Loop) sit here at one-third capacity,” said Planning Commission Chair Bernie Creguer.
Officials at the master plan workshop also discussed how far away from the loop a solar farm can be constructed, but Bean was not sure what the distance was.
If it’s close, Planner Robert Oakes said that the only land that’s available for solar development near the loop would be prime farmland.
Although wind development is compatible with farmland preservation (PA 116), large-scale solar farms are not an acceptable use of PA 116 farmland. Farmers gain tax credits by enrolling their farms, and the status bans any development on the property.
Rich Harlow, program manager for the Farmland Preservation Program of the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, has previously told the Tribune that in order to develop commercial solar farms, the property would have to be rezoned to commercial or industrial; seven years worth of tax credits would have to be paid back; and more land would have to be set aside for preservation.
Of Huron County’s 452,486 acres of farmland, 75 percent of it is enrolled in PA 116 – or 340,917 acres.
Bean provided a map showing how much land each township has enrolled in the program.
He said at the next meeting, he would look into providing data on the quality of the farmland throughout the county, so that it can be determined whether lower-quality farmland may be considered for solar development.
Cypress Creek Renewables would like to build as many as 15 to 20-acre solar farms in Huron County, according to a Cypress Creek official who recently updated the Huron County Board of Commissioners on the company’s plans for Huron County.
The company has also offered to cover the cost of paying back tax credits.
But Smith said at a later board meeting that to be released from the state farmland preservation program is not an easy task.
Landowners had previously indicated to Smith that they are being offered up to $800 an acre to develop solar farms – more than they can earn farming.
“Wind came in with a lot of promises of money,” Oakes said.
However, the county now finds itself in a situation where wind companies are disputing how turbines are taxed.
The county and townships that have collected wind tax revenue are now on guard as to possibly having to return some money to wind developers, depending on how the Michigan Tax Tribunal rules on the issue.
The Huron County Master Plan is required under the Michigan Zoning Enabling Act.
It includes general policy that will permit various kinds of development, as well as a future land use map that shows where uses such as agricultural, residential, commercial and industrial will be allowed.
“I think we do need to address solar on the future land use map,” Bean said.
Although he made it clear that he was not advocating for or against solar energy.
“I don’t think there’s much of an appetite for it,” Oakes said, considering what the county has been through with wind energy controversy.
Bean noted that it’s important to have clear policy, goals and objectives.
“I think the master plan does need to guide what happens next,” he said
Other areas officials have indicated that could be used for solar development include abandoned industrial sites.