Leelanau News and Events

A Solar Powered Peninsula

By Emily Tyra | May 11, 2020

As of today, Leelanau is approaching 100 solar installations county-wide, according to Joe DeFors, president of the board at Leelanau Energy, a nonprofit with a big goal: transforming the Leelanau Peninsula into a community 100 percent powered by renewable energy sources.

“It’s very ambitious, but we think we need to be ambitious,” says DeFors.

He explains that while Leelanau Energy’s volunteer experts advocate for renewable energy, the group doesn’t often actually build out projects. “People come to us a clearing house for information and resources…we are like matchmakers,” he explains. “We will go anywhere and talk to anybody about renewable energy.”

DeFors says that they also push for larger utility providers to change their mix of energy sources: “We are lucky have Cherryland Electric Co-op and Consumers Energy in Leelanau. Both, to their credit, are open to transitioning their portfolios to a greater proportion of renewable energy.”

The majority of Leelanau’s solar arrays are residential, but businesses such as Light of Day Organics, Brengman Brothers, Leelanau Cheese, North Shore Outfitters, Black Star Farms and Leelanau Fruit Co. have all gone at least partially solar powered, and Cherry Republic plans to add a solar array to power its Glen Arbor office complex this spring. Here’s even more of the latest solar-powered scoop from across Leelanau:

Keswick United Methodist Church
Village of Suttons Bay resident Fred Elmore says after a successful installation by Leelanau Solar at both his home and income property, he presented the idea of implementing a solar array to the congregation at Keswick United Methodist Church, where he is a member. He explains that though the idea aligned with the church’s environmental mission and the long-term economic benefits were clear, the initial cost to install was too big of an obstacle. As a private nonprofit, the church would not get the same tax incentives and grants a business would — for example, USDA Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) Grants pay up to 25 percent of the installed cost of a system.

Undeterred, Elmore consulted with experts at Leelanau Energy and Michigan Interfaith Power & Light, a Detroit-based nonprofit that “tries to help houses of worship go green,” he says.

Elmore says the groups shared how a power purchase agreement (PPA) might work, rather than the church fronting the funds for the installation. A PPA is a financial agreement where a developer arranges for permitting, financing and installation of a solar energy system on a customer’s property at little or no cost. The developer then sells the power generated to the host at a low fixed rate, receiving the income from these sales as well as any tax credits.

A private investor within the Keswick congregation formed a business solely for renting land and selling power to the church. “Our power bill going down, giving us more money to do what we are there to do.”

Elmore adds that “as a model that worked right here in the county, the goal of all this now is to get the idea out there. Hopefully other pastors and congregations can look at it and say ‘we can do this…’”

The Old Art Building
Dan Lisuk, Leland resident and board president of the Leland Community Cultural Center, connected the dots for the Old Art Building solar installation, which went live last June.

The project had been tabled since 2014 due to cost, but fast-forward to early 2018, when a former colleague of Lisuk’s at Traverse City West Senior High texted him the name of the national nonprofit All Points North Foundation. “They believe the two areas they can make the most impact is supporting solar energy and supporting middle school education,” he says.

Lisuk quickly formed a triangle between The Old Art Building, Peninsula Solar, and All Points North. After a visit from representatives from All Points North and a rigorous application process that tapped the expertise of Peninsula Solar, a fully funded $60,000 system was installed on The Old Art Building roof last June. “This shows what impact one comment from one community member might have,” says Lisuk of the text that started the ball rolling.

“As for the array, it fits right in and you have to try to actually see it,” says Lisuk. “Since The Old Art Building is 98-year-old icon in the community, every decision we make we have to consider that.”

He adds, “I just got the read-out from Consumers Energy, and they owe us $175 coming out of the winter…just imagine how this will look as the days get longer and brighter. And last I checked our real time monitor display of cumulative data [on May 6], we’ve produced 17.5 MW of energy since installation. We’ve saved 27,098 pounds of CO2 from going out in the atmosphere, the equivalent of 682 trees being planted to absorb that much CO2.”

Cherry Republic
Meanwhile in Glen Arbor, Cherry Republic president Bob Sutherland has his own “wow” goal for clean renewable energy: “I would love it if one day every Cherry Republic employee, customer, and vendor had a home or business powered exclusively by renewable energy,” he says.

In the last year, Cherry Republic has partially funded employees’ solar installations at their homes and, says Director of Marketing Andrew Moore, “Cherry Republic is certainly following through on our promise to support employees in their goal to move to renewable energy. It’s been a bit more challenging in recent months, but we had a successful beta test with a few employees and are finalizing the details to expand to the rest of our staff this year. Our program will help connect them with the resources, providers and funds — including grants from Cherry Republic — they need to make their renewable energy goals a reality.” 

Sutherland adds that Cherry Republic recently purchased a Glen Arbor building complex to house most of their offices. “And this spring, we will be installing a $65,000 solar array on a perfect south facing roof. It is a no-brainer with the tax incentives and REAP grant.”

Over the last three years, Cherry Republic has awarded a total of 12 farms $5,000 grants for their solar installations. Sutherland says the company is focusing more of its general giving programs to “action on climate change and our movement to renewable energy.” At the end of 2019, Cherry Republic gave $100,000 to groups working on those two issues. He says, “Some of the largest recipients were the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, the Michigan Climate Action Network, and Groundworks Clean Energy Project.”

Sutherland echoes that message of giving in his stores: “At the register, we ask our customers if they would like to ‘round up for renewable energy in our schools.’ Most of our proceeds [$2,727] went to support the solar installation at Westwood Elementary,” he says. “This year, we are also starting a new campaign where $1 from the sale of any type of cherry snack mix we sell will go to one of eight organizations working on clean air, water, and energy.”

He adds, “My staff and I believe there is no more important place to give our money than on climate action and the move to clean energies. We work hard to find the organizations and projects that will make the biggest impact.”

ADDENDUM: The original version of this story listed Peninsula Solar as a Marquette-based company. Although it does have an office in Marquette, it also has an office in Cedar, where the business began. President Ian Olmsted grew up on Little Traverse Lake, and Peninsula Solar's first projects were installed in Leland. Today the majority of the company's work is based around the Leelanau Peninsula. 

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