The shift to renewable energy sources in Michigan has picked up in the past few years because it is cleaner and helps power companies meet regulatory restrictions on emissions.
DTE Energy aims to develop its largest solar project in Michigan yet, generating up to 50 megawatts, to add to its growing renewable energy portfolio.
The new project is expected to be in southeast Michigan and online by the end of next year.
"DTE is the largest investor in solar in the state," Irene Dimitry, a DTE vice president, said Tuesday. "The development of a new solar project reflects DTE Energy's broader commitment to build a more sustainable future for our customers."
Right now, DTE generates about 10% of its energy from renewable sources, meeting state law requirements set in 2008. Of that amount, the overwhelming majority of renewable sources — about 95% — is from wind turbines, the company said. Less than 1% is from solar.
But the new project's scale — as much as 50 times larger than some of the largest solar projects in the state now — signals a significant shift in renewable energy sources and thinking about solar energy, once believed by some to be too expensive and too inefficient to be viable, according to some industry watchers.
"It's not like it changes things overnight," said John Sarver, president of the board of directors of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. The power generated from the new solar project is still tiny, in comparison to a nuclear plant, which generate hundreds, even thousands, of megawatts. "It's more of an indication of a trend."
The energy generated from the new solar project will flow into the grid, the power company said, and could be enough to power more than 8,000 homes.
Michigan still gets about half of its power from coal, a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions, but is seeking to reduce its dependence on coal-fired power plants as the state aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 31% from 2012 levels.
DTE has announced plans to retire a third of its coal generation, more than 2,000 megawatts, by 2025, and rely on more natural gas and renewable energy.
In March, the governor outlined a renewable energy plan calling for the state to meet up to 40% of its power needs through energy waste reduction, increased use of natural gas and renewable energy sources.
Overall, the move to renewable energy sources in Michigan has picked up in the past five years because it is cleaner and helps power companies meet regulatory restrictions on emissions.
The Obama administration is seeking a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.
Environmentally conscious residents and business owners have installed small solar projects for years, Sarver said.
But DTE's latest announcement is a good indication that the power company plans to invest in larger and larger solar projects, he said.
The cost to generate solar power has been falling, in some cases by more than half.
"It got to the point it's economical for people," Sarver said.
Wind energy has been the primary source of renewable power in Michigan, because of the cost to generate it; and the abundance of wind in some areas of the state. But, some Michiganders have objected to wind turbines because the whirling blades make noise and harm flying birds.
Solar has become increasingly attractive as companies aim to not rely too heavily on just one source.
DTE operates more than 20 solar projects in the state, including some at Ford in Dearborn and Monroe Community College in Monroe.
DTE's largest project so far, at Domino's Farms east of Ann Arbor, is expected to be completed by the end of the year and generate just over 1 megawatt, enough to power about 165 homes.
DTE is asking for bids for its new project, which would be 5 to 50 megawatts, by July 22.
New Solar Project
Location: Southeast Michigan
Acres: At least 20
Power generation: 5 to 50 megawatts
Homes to power: up to 8,250
Source: DTE Energy