Michigan solar project scrapped after developer ‘disappeared,’ city claims

A 2.25 megawatt solar project planned on a former landfill site near downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan has been cancelled after the developer “disappeared” and stopped communicating, city officials claim.

City officials say the setback will not deter them, however, from working toward an ambitious renewable energy target.

In 2015, Grand Rapids chose Massachusetts-based American Capital Energy for the project following a competitive bidding process that beat out five other proposals. Since mid-2016, city officials say the company has not been responsive about moving forward with a long-term power purchase and land lease agreement.

“The contractor kind of fell off the grid, they kind of disappeared,” said Michael Lunn, Grand Rapids’ environmental services manager. “We have sent them a letter ending the project because they haven’t been responsive.”

Lunn said an interconnection agreement had been reached with Consumers Energy last year, and American Capital Energy had ceased communications around that time.

Multiple attempts to reach Tom Hunton, who co-founded American Capital Energy in 2005, were unsuccessful. An attorney representing the company, Don McCauley, declined to comment for this story.

The project was initiated under the former administration of Mayor George Heartwell, who set the city on an aggressive path to get 100 percent of its electricity needs from renewables by 2025. The project was celebrated for using a contaminated former landfill site roughly a mile from downtown, and was to help power operations of a nearby wastewater treatment facility.

Lunn said the solar project has effectively been canceled. The city is now interested in pursuing an anaerobic digestion project to replace it, with consideration for a possible smaller solar project at the site.

The Butterworth Acres landfill has been identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a Superfund site. EPA, as well as state, officials had been involved through the development of the project. In 2013, the EPA funded a reuse feasibility study for the property, which would have been on a city-owned portion of the 190-acre site. Since 2000, the city has considered a variety of recreational reuses of the site.

The West Michigan Environmental Action Council believes the opportunity to develop solar at the former landfill still exists, perhaps under a different structure.

“Based on where the proposed project was to be located, it seems like there is still a lot of potential for using the Butterworth site for either a community solar project, or a large array to power some other municipal project on that side of the river,” said WMEAC Executive Director Bill Wood.

“I have faith that the city will continue to look at renewables as a source of energy there,“ he added.

Lunn said the city has spent roughly $30,000 on the project: $20,000 for engineering services and another $10,000 for legal counsel. Formal communications ending the project are still being addressed by the city’s attorneys, Lunn said. Original projections said the plan would have saved the city $200,000 a year or more on energy costs.

Lunn said American Capital Energy was picked in part because it had worked on similar landfill solar projects across the country. The company also provided the lowest bid for the electricity, at 7.25 cents per kilowatt-hour, he said. Four others came in at about 8 cents per kWh and one at 12 cents.

American Capital Energy appears to be active on other solar-related ventures. In 2015, it announced a joint solar venture project with a Florida-based independent power producer. In 2014, the company helped develop a major solar project on multiple landfill sites in Massachusetts.

However, that project resulted in lawsuits over payments directed through various entities. Liz Argo, manager of programs and administration for the Cape and Vineyard Electric Cooperative, an entity named as a defendant by American Capital Energy in one of the lawsuits, said the parties had reached a settlement. Argo declined to comment about American Capital Energy.

For now, Grand Rapids is picking up the pieces of the original solar plan as it continues to boost its renewable portfolio.

“I think we had a good process,” Lunn said. “The power purchase agreement is a good public-private partnership approach. I thought we picked a good contractor, but you never know. The city is committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2025 and we’re going to keep working at it. As with any project, some go better than others.”

Comments are closed.