Monsters of the Midwest: Giant solar farms approved in Illinois and Michigan

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Any time a solar power project with a capacity greater than 100 MW is announced or approved, it’s a big deal, period. When a project of that size is announced in the under-developed Midwest, it’s extra interesting. Think about it like this: if you go on a snorkeling trip and swim right up next to a shark, it’s going to freak you out, but that’s their habitat. However, if you’re at the town pool and you swim up next to a shark, it’s going to raise eyebrows.

Now if I were to tell you that among the loose band-aids and chlorine-coated kids of the town pool that there were not one, but two sharks swimming around, now that would be sufficient cause for alarm. Well, in a much less biologically impossible way, local officials in Michigan and Illinois have approved two massive solar projects: 239 MW in Shiawassee County, Michigan and 150 MW in Champaign County, Illinois. Or, to go back to shark terms: a Great White and a Megalodon.

 

Major for Michigan


With development being led by New York-based Ranger Power, the Shiawassee County solar plant would be set to become easily the largest project in Michigan if even half of the proposed capacity is installed.

Now you might be thinking the term easily was used a bit liberally in that previous sentence, but this is truly unprecedented development for the region. For reference Michigan’s total installed capacity as of the end of June is 148 MWdc, placing it 30th nationally, according to SEIA. That means that this single project, assuming the final capacity is the reported maximum, would represent a 160% increase in the state’s total installed solar capacity.

 

Illinois’ Interest

Because the universe works in perfect harmony, governed by feng shui, the Champaign County solar farm is being developed developed by California-based BayWa R. E., providing costal balance to Shiawassee’s New York-based development.

And the deeper you go, the harmony follows. Illinois currently has a total installed solar capacity of 100 MW, good for 34th in the nation, again according to SEIA. Again, like in Michigan, this single project, this one site, will dwarf the state’s entire installed capacity thus far, representing an addition of 150%. Now I know 150% isn’t exactly reflective 160%, but I’m willing to give feng shui 10% wiggle room.

It is notable that these very large single-site projects are being approved while other large projects are being shot down by local resistance. Consider that the Shiawassee County project passed the Planning Commission’s vote unanimously, while the Champaign County project received an 88% ‘yes’ vote from the county board. It’s reassuring to see projects of such ambitious capacity get nearly unanimous approval, considering that earlier this month we saw the proposed Sportsylvania project in Virginia have two of its three special-use permits denied on the basis of the project’s very large footprint.

The support is especially reassuring for the Shiawassee project, as before this project the county rejected a 200 MW wind farm in the same area. Things could and may well change between now and the project’s expected on-line dates in 2020, but for now the sharks are in the pool and they’re getting comfortable.