There has been so much talk about solar lately. What I want to know is what are you going to do with all the solar panels at the end of their lifespan? Are they just going to end up in a landfill?   

There has been a lot of talk about solar lately because it is at the centerpiece of our Clean Energy Plan as we propose to end coal use by 2025 and have more than 60% of our electric capacity come from renewable sources by 2040. 

But we know our customers have a lot of questions and reservations, so let’s talk about them, starting with the “where do solar panels go to die” question. Every good thing must come to an end, including the effectiveness of solar panels. The good news is that doesn’t happen until 30 or more years – so not something we’ll have to worry about for a long time. That doesn’t mean we don’t have a plan for when it does happen. Our panels use Photovoltaic (PV) materials that convert sunlight directly into energy and 95% of the panels are recyclable. If for some reason they require replacement before the estimated 30-year lifespan, we’ll work with the manufacturers on warranty issues and disposal. And there are multiple regional recyclers in Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee that we can utilize to recycle the panels at the end of their lifespan.  

Okay, now that we’ve covered that – let’s talk about some other questions and concerns our customers have raised.  

We’ve heard some people are turned-off by the looks of solar panels, especially the thought of disrupting a greenspace or the look of cornfields. If we could answer this one in photos, we would say. Do you really think this:  

Looks worse than this?  

I’m going to guess probably not, but we’re just used to the latter. It’s what we know and what we’re comfortable with.  

We really wish you wouldn’t judge a book by its cover! The solar panels will have minimal impact for nearby residents. Their visual profile is minimal – especially compared to the well-known transmission lines and the more recent wind turbines (not that we’re knocking our turbines – we still love wind!)  

Now, what about the impact on animals and their habitats?  

Many people are concerned that the solar panels will negatively impact animals and their habitats. To ensure that doesn’t happen we completed site characterization studies before building, which included: 

  • An assessment of potential habitat for state and federal wildlife. 
  • Wetland presence to avoid.
  • Full environmental analysis.

In addition, solar array sites can be seeded with native grasses and pollinating plants to promote biodiversity and create new habitat for bees and other pollinators.  

Okay, now that we know our wildlife is in good hands, let’s talk about one more common question we hear when it comes to solar. We live in Michigan, not exactly the sunshine state, so how are we going to provide energy when the sun isn’t shining, and the ground is covered in snow?  

We are optimistic about solar – but we’re not delusional! We know the sun doesn’t always shine, which is why our Clean Energy Plan includes the proposed purchase of an existing natural gas-fired power plant in Covert. With the addition of this gas plant to our current natural gas power plants in Zeeland and Jackson, we will be able to supply reliable, on-demand electricity to meet Michigan’s needs regardless of the time of year. We are also counting on battery technology to help us store electricity generated by solar and other renewable energy resources. We’ll save it for those dreary winter days and weeks when solar production is challenging. With that said, it’s important to note that just because it’s cloudy or snowing doesn’t mean the panels aren’t working. Even in cloudy conditions, irradiance hitting the solar panels generates electricity. And our panels are bifacial which means they can still produce because the sun reflects off the snow. During the months when snow covers the panels, our operations and maintenance crews will remove the snow as needed, although it is often removed as the panels rotate and warm up from operation.  

I know we didn’t answer every question there is about solar, but it’s a start. We’ll keep you updated as plans progress.