The Cadillac Solar Gardens is the state’s first site to study the ecosystem living beneath solar panels.

By Carin Tunney

Sometimes a story is more than it seems. And this is more than story about a green energy.

About 75 people gathered at the site of an old, industrial eyesore July 19 to dedicate Consumers Energy’s latest solar gardens facility.

“We are literally walking the talk,” said Lauren Youngdahl Snyder, Consumers Energy’s Vice President of Customer Experience. “We made a bold commitment to be net zero and retire our coal plants by 2025, which makes us ahead of other utilities in the nation. We are making great progress, and this is a proof-point that we can achieve what we set out to do.”

Gathered in front of six long rows of silvery solar panels, Cadillac community and business leaders joined state and local lawmakers who spoke of revitalization, meeting the rising demand for low-cost, renewable energy and a company’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions.

The 2.8-acre project, which sits a few blocks north of Lake Cadillac, is the former site of the Mitchell-Bentley industrial building. It manufactured broom handles, boats, car parts and other products until it burned in 2013. The fire contaminated the soil with asbestos and other pollutants, and the site fell into neglect.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) worked with Cadillac city leaders to decontaminate the site, and in 2019, Consumers Energy partnered with the city of to develop a solar project.

“This project hits many themes of where we are going in the future,” said EGLE director Liesl Clark. “There is demand from across the state for renewable energy in both the public and private sector. The state has committed to using 100% renewable energy, and we are so grateful to Consumers Energy to work to meet the demand for renewables that we are seeing from the public and private sector – not just from large corporations, but from medium and small businesses too.”

Consumers Energy customers can purchase solar energy for as little as $9 a month and receive bill credits for participating. Several Cadillac-area businesses have already enrolled.

Brian Blake, senior manufacturing engineer at Piranha Hose Products said his company signed on to help meet its demand for renewable energy.

“Our corporation has sustainable development goals and our actions prove that we are committed to the community and our planet,” Blake said. “If you could see what this site looked like 10 years ago compared to now, you would see why we have so much pride in it as a community.”

But the blight-to-bright effort is just one part of the story. The story beneath the panels is just as interesting. As the 1,752 panels churn out enough energy to power 100 homes, University of Michigan scientists will collect data that could shape green energy investments across the region.

“These sites are ripe for scientific research,” said Brendan O’Neill, the ecosystem researcher leading the project. “This is the first study of its kind in Michigan. The idea is that apart from sustainable energy, we can measure the ecosystem services from soil, air and water and monitor those to understand this site as its own ecosystem.”

His team will capture data on species diversity, water quality and the soil’s recovery from its former brownfield state. They’ll also measure soil carbon accumulation. Carbon dioxide traps heat, and an excess in the atmosphere contributes to climate change. But plants capture carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, (a process that also produces oxygen) and eventually transfer this carbon into the soil.

Palm sized monitors clipped to solar panels will measure temperature, light and reflected energy like the glare from ground cover and winter snow. The results will help shape Consumers Energy’s future investments. Newer solar panels capture solar energy from the top and beneath so it’s important to understand reflective energy.

Later this summer, crews will apply different seed mixes. Two are meant to attract pollinators. Another is the traditional grass mix used by Consumers Energy. The goal is to compare ecosystem benefits while optimizing panel performance and reducing maintenance of ground cover. It will take several years for the seed to fully grab hold — scientists call it the sleep, creep, leap process.

Beyond the science, another goal is to understand which seed requires the least maintenance.

“We want it to thrive on neglect,” said David Petrie, senior solar project development manager at Consumers Energy. “We want to determine which grass mix requires the least attention.”

Low-maintenance vegetation saves money in the long run because it requires less mowing.

During the event, 35th district State Senator Kurt Vanderall, applauded the dual purpose of the site.

“We are going to see projects like these pop up all over the state,” Vanderall said. “This is important for the future, for us and our children to see.”

The project is part of Consumers Energy’s 5-year plan to enhance, restore or protect 5,000 acres of land in Michigan by 2022.