In addition to their environmental benefits, utility-scale renewable energy projects create new revenue for the communities where they’re sited.

Sometimes, they even help preserve paychecks.

A family-owned dairy farm northwest of Battle Creek was preparing to shut down after decades of operation – until the Spring Creek AgriEnergy Center presented new economic possibilities.

Consumers Energy originally bought nearly 3,000 acres at the farm straddling Calhoun and Barry counties as part of a plan to build a utility-scale solar power plant.

Rather than close the farm’s existing dairy operations, we’ve partnered with Swisslane Farms, a large dairy farm near Grand Rapids, to keep the business running and provide fuel for a new biodigester to convert into clean, renewable natural gas, or RNG.

The first-of-its-kind joint solar-RNG project will help keep the milk – and the money – flowing for the local community.

“I would not be able to do the job I love if we didn’t have this relationship with Consumers Energy,” said Kevin Nye, site manager for the dairy farm.

‘I wasn’t ready to be done’

Nye started working at the dairy farm on the Spring Creek property in 1979, before he’d even graduated from Hastings High School. He began milking cows through a school co-op program, soon hired on full-time and eventually worked his way up to become the site manager responsible for hundreds of cows and growing the crops to feed them.

The farm’s original owners began trying to sell the operation as they approached retirement but couldn’t find the right deal. After working more than 40 years at the farm, Nye was facing the prospect of having to start over, perhaps in another career field.

“I knew that I would be out of a job,” said Nye, 61, who was tasked with prepping the dairy farm for prospective buyers. “I’d been with them so long and I wasn’t ready to be done. It was stressful to a degree. I often joked I might end up as a greeter at (a grocery store).”

Creative Clean Energy Solution

Nye was able to stop worrying when we bought the farmland for the Spring Creek AgriEnergy Center, a unique collaboration to site solar and RNG projects on the same property:

  • The Spring Creek solar facility is part of the 8,000-megawatt solar buildup proposed in our Clean Energy Plan a 20-year blueprint to eliminate coal, give customers more control to reduce energy waste and dramatically boost the amount of electricity we generate from clean, renewable sources. We plan to own and run the project, which would begin operation in 2026, producing up to 140 megawatts of clean electricity – enough power for about 25,000 homes. Learn more about our solar plans and how they benefit Michigan farmers and communities here.
  • The Spring Creek biodigester will capture methane from the decomposition of cow manure through anaerobic digestion, then clean and condition it to produce RNG, which is safely delivered to customers through existing pipelines in our vast distribution network. We could begin producing RNG as soon as 2025. We’re also partnering with Swisslane on an RNG biodigester at its primary location in Alto.

A New Era Dawns

Once built, Spring Creek Solar Project will supply tax revenue for the local community over the 30-plus-year lifetime of the project.

Nye and about 15 co-workers feel the positive economic impact personally.

Instead of searching for jobs, they’ve continued their roles for Swisslane Farms. Together, they’re focused on the daily operations of the large dairy farm and preparing for the fast-approaching construction of solar panels and an RNG biodigester.

“(The transition) could not have gone better,” said Nye, who is now managing two farms in the Battle Creek area for Swisslane. “This dairy farm is one of the larger employers in our township, so this was a positive.”

The utility-scale renewable energy project is keeping a long-running farm in business, he said.

“The way I look at it, they could have divided this land up and sold it for houses and it would have disappeared,” Nye said. “I don’t want people to perceive Consumers Energy as a big bully pushing everyone out. They understand the business we’re trying to accomplish and they’re working with us.”

Related blog:

Leading the Clean Energy Transformation with “Agri Energy Center” in Southwest Michigan