Harnessing the Sun

LSA Wire, Maryanne George; Photos by Sam Field
Release Date: 

At Michigan's largest solar farm, alumni power homes with sunlight.

When Sam Field looks out over his 756 solar panels soaking up the sun on a farm in Galesburg, Michigan, nine miles east of Kalamazoo, he thinks about sweet corn in August.

"The panels are only 10 feet in the air, no higher than corn in August," says Field ('74, Law '77) co-founder of the state's largest solar farm, which hooked up to the Consumers Energy grid on February 17. "There are no negatives with solar farms. They don't kill birds or interrupt flight paths.

"We have yet to find anyone who does not like solar," he says. "It's powered 100 percent by Michigan sunshine."

The farm, officially known as the Kalamazoo Solar Project, produces 147 kilowatts, enough to power 20 to 25 homes, Field says.

The solar array was designed and built by Field, his son Connor, a U-M student majoring in economics and electrical engineering, his wife Shon (U-M '73), fellow investor Rick Schmitt, and Connor's friend, Josh Cook. It's located on one and a half acres of farm land, owned by Schmitt, in Galesburg.

Connor says the environmental disaster caused by the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico highlights the need to develop other forms of energy.

"Energy will be the major concern in the United States for my generation," Connor says. "Now is the time to research and invest in the technologies that will power our future. The more rapidly they progress, the fewer environmental and geopolitical disasters we will have to endure.''

Rather than waiting around, the Fields and their partners decided to become pioneers in solar energy in Michigan. Sam Field, a trial lawyer in Kalamazoo who had been working with wind energy projects, said they became interested in building the farm after a state law passed in 2008, requiring utilities to get 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015.

"There were far more unknowns than knowns," Field says. "There was no one to ask. We were trying something that had not been done in Michigan or the Midwest."

With an investment of about $750,000, they built the farm from scratch, digging trenches and building articulating racks to mount the solar panels, which were purchased from a manufacturer in Massachusetts. They hired engineers and electricians to help with some of the technical work, and they spent hours calculating where the sun would fall on the panels to capture the most rays possible.

To convert the solar power from DC to AC current, they purchased 21 7,000-watt inverters. Each inverter converts power from about 36 solar panels.

Encouraging Solar Development

Consumers Energy, Detroit Edison, and other electric providers are creating experimental or pilot renewable energy programs to comply with the state law.

Consumers Experimental Advanced Renewable Program (EARP) buys renewable energy from homeowners and companies at a premium rate of 45 to 65 cents per kilowatt hour to encourage development, says Consumers spokesman Dan Bishop. State residents currently pay only 10 to 11 cents per kilowatt hour. The Fields and their partners developed their solar farm using the EARP model. Solar farms also qualify for federal stimulus funds to subsidize construction. Consumers' goal is to develop 2,000 kilowatts of solar power in Michigan by 2015, and it currently has about 55 companies and individuals waiting to produce solar power, Bishop says.

Michigan's electricity providers need to generate about 2,200 megawatts (1,000 kilowatts equals one megawatt) of all forms of renewable power to reach the state goal of 10 percent by 2015, says Tom Stanton, coordinator for the Michigan Renewable Energy Program at the Michigan Public Service Commission. Edison's and Consumers' pilot solar programs combined will generate 22 megawatts, one percent of the total. Michigan currently has about 1,000 kilowatts of solar power installed across the state, he says.

Although warmer states like Florida and Arizona seem like natural locations for solar farms, once temperatures rise above 75 degrees, solar panels work less efficiently, says Connor, who decided to pursue a second bachelor's degree at U-M in electrical engineering after working on the design of the solar farm. He has completed coursework for a degree in economics and plans to graduate in 2012.

Michigan's more moderate climate and snowy winters actually make it a good state for solar farming, he says. In winter, sun reflects off of snow, increasing the energy. Even on cloudy days, about 80 percent of the sun's energy still hits the panels. The Fields' farm produces power between four and a half and five hours a day.

While most solar racks are fixed, Connor designed a system with articulating racks to reposition the panels throughout the year to take advantage of the sun's changing angles. The racks improve the panels' efficiency by 20 percent, he says.

The demand for power in Michigan is highest in the middle of the afternoon and peaks in mid-summer because of air conditioning, Connor points out. When demand is the highest, the Fields' farm is producing the most power.

Installation costs and the storage of solar power are some of the challenges that must be overcome to expand solar farms.

In 2009, the national average cost to produce solar power was $7.92 per watt, according to the National Renewable Energy Lab.

The break-even point is $1 per watt, Sam Field says. As more solar power is produced, the Fields expect production costs to drop. They were able to construct their solar project for a lower amount by completing most of the work themselves. They hope to continue to bring costs down so they can build additional solar farms, but it's too soon to know how long it will take to recoup the costs of the Kalamazoo project, Field says.

"If one-third of the land that was devoted to production of corn for ethanol was devoted to solar farming we could produce more energy than we consume in the United States," Connor says. "But if we can't store it, we can't make it work."

Sending solar power across the country wastes about 30 percent, making it more efficient to locate a farm close to where the power is being used, Field says. The Fields' production of 147 kilowatts could power a factory located across from the farm.

"Connor and I are convinced that the day will come when we can beat coal power production on cost," says Field.