The former Quincy Smelting Works site near Houghton, Michigan is among the brownfield sites in the Upper Peninsula mapped for solar potential by a new online tool. Credit: John W. Iwanaski / Creative Commons

A Michigan nonprofit has identified nearly 80 brownfield sites in the Upper Peninsula that could host the development of more than 750 megawatts of solar.

East Lansing-based Michigan Energy Options, which also has offices in Marquette and works with utilities and local governments on solar projects, identified the brownfield properties as having beneficial reuses with renewable energy.

The solar mapping tool specifically looks at the areas around Marquette and Houghton in the central and northwest U.P. It lists 79 sites with 752 megawatts of solar potential, as well as each site’s proximity to transmission lines, substations and roads. One site is a former mine on 756 acres that has the potential for up to 184 MW of solar.

Michigan Energy Options Executive Director John Kinch said discussions about the project were spurred by the presence of coal ash dumping sites as well as former mines, which are common in these areas of the U.P. The tool also identifies former landfills, mills and other industrial sites.

“Because of the industrial nature of a lot of these enterprises, those sites might be relatively near transmission and distribution lines so they wouldn’t have to go too far to hook into them,” Kinch said. “We wondered where those sites are and if we could provide information to come up with something that is at least a look at what potential might be there if folks decide to develop a few or a number of sites into solar.”

Most of the sites have at least one megawatt of potential, which Kinch says makes the most sense financially for wholesale distribution-scale projects.

Many of the publicly and privately owned locations are designated as contaminated properties through the state. Michigan has tens of thousands of contaminated sites statewide, though many more may not have yet been identified.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s RE-Powering America’s Land Initiative encourages renewable energy development on these contaminated sites. While helping facilitate such development, the agency says, “This approach not only reuses the land, but turns a potential liability into an asset that will serve the community for decades to come.”

The EPA program also highlights the 10.8-megawatt, 43-acre Maywood Solar Farm at an Indianapolis Superfund site.

Kinch says Massachusetts and New Jersey are examples of states with incentives in place to specifically develop solar on brownfield sites. Michigan provides grants, loans, tax increment financing and free site assessments to facilitate brownfield redevelopment, but Kinch says none specifically target clean energy reuses.

At least one solar project in Michigan has been developed at the site of a former landfill near Lansing, and the city of Grand Rapids has also expressed interest for solar at a similar site there.

A 2010 study by the Land Policy Institute at Michigan State University estimated 4,320 MW in wind and solar potential on brownfield sites across the state.

Energy as economic development

Michigan Energy Options identified the Marquette and Houghton areas in part due to interest from economic development agencies in using energy as a source of economic growth.

“It’s really a useful tool for policy makers and planners to better understand solar applications in our region and how underdeveloped or underutilized it can be to generate clean power and potentially add revenues for local governments,” said Brad Barnett, regional planner with the Western Upper Peninsula Planning and Development Region. “We have some pretty steep energy prices in our region, this is exploring creative options while potentially reusing land.”

Barnett added that the mapping tool is “by no means a comprehensive list” of potential properties. He also says the state could have more favorable policies to incentivize solar development.

“We have the technical capacity to generate a substantial portion of energy from solar here, but there are some policy hurdles that prevent doing large-scale community solar,” Barnett said. “We need to develop and foster relationships with regional utilities to see large-scale solar utilization in our region.”

While the mapping tool so far is contained to two areas of the U.P., Kinch “would like to see if this model is something that could translate to other parts of the state,” as well as include the economic impact of potential projects.

“Folks up there are concerned about jobs, economic growth and sustainability,” he said. “They might be more persuaded (by solar) if they saw some of the numbers.”

Andy compiles the Midwest Energy News digest and was a journalism fellow for Midwest Energy News from 2014-2020. He is managing editor of MiBiz in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and was formerly a reporter and editor at City Pulse, Lansing’s alternative newsweekly.

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