A Look At What White Tail Solar Could Look Like If Built

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White Tail Solar could spend up to thirty years providing carbon-free power to homes and businesses across Southeastern Michigan. But if the project does get the go ahead from both Augusta and York Townships, what will that actually look like?

The developer, Ranger Power, has been giving tours of another one of its solar farms to members of the public, in Shiawassee County, about halfway between Flint and Lansing. Like in Washtenaw County, this rural installation is built onto farmland. Only the first of three phases is currently online there, but it will eventually produce 239 MW across about 2300 acres, according to the developer. It is already selling 50 MW or so to local power utilities. The Sun Times News took the tour, Friday.

“Solar panels are very safe. Panels do not produce a great deal of heat, but could be warm to the touch on a hot sunny day like any other surface. The panels return to ambient temperature at night,” Ranger Spokesman Drew Vielbig said in an email to the Sun Times News. “Like any source of electricity, it is important to be aware of risks and solar projects. We include deer fencing on all sides surrounding the project area of a solar project to minimize safety risks.”

Rows and rows of solar panels were put in the fields on thick metal poles, which go into the ground as much as seven feet, and stand high like, as Veilbig put it, rows of metal vineyards. They are always arranged north to south, to allow the panels to rotate east to west with the sun, through a complicated system of sensors, motors and computer algorithms.The motor that powers the movement gets its power from its own, thin panel, which is at one end of the row, slightly higher up on its own metal arm.

The sun was dipping in and out behind the gaps of the brisk movement of clouds, March 5. And the solar panels, moving automatically with the star as the earth rotated made little clicking noises every so often. This was the panels moving with the sun, the little gears and algorithms nudging the double sided, eastern facing panels, ever so slightly westward. The noise was hardly audible, like hearing someone click a computer mouse three or four times, then silence.

The management of just this system has become its own little profession, according to Brian Timer, of the construction contractor McCarthy.

Image Credit: Ranger Power

The Shiawassee project is about a year old, and it is likely that White Tail would be built on a similar time frame. According to McCarthy Construction, the pay range for these jobs ranges by profession, from $14 an hour for an unskilled laborer to $25 per hour for skilled laborers like electricians and mechanics.

McCarthy, which is the expected contractor, also says that they do as much as possible to hire at least 85 percent of their crew for any job locally. Local job fairs will be made available if the project is approved. If any position can’t be filled locally, McCarthy said it maintains relationships with employees, hiring them on future projects.

McCarthy spokeswoman Patty Johnson told the Sun Times News by email that the Shiawassee location – which is somewhat larger than the proposed White Tail location – “Has employed approximately 350 workers. More than 65 percent of these workers have been hired by the local workforce.” The local workforce being defined as “residents of Shiawassee County and the surrounding counties.”

Image Credit: Ranger Power

Solar photovoltaic installers is the third fastest growing profession in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The federal Department of Labor’s in-house statistical agency is projecting a 51 percent growth in the number of jobs between 2019 and 2029, with yearly salaries averaging $44,980. Only nurse practitioners and wind turbine service technicians can expect higher job growth.

There will be far fewer long term jobs at either the Shiawassee location, or the potential Washtenaw County location. The jobs that are created will range from middle class paying jobs involving maintenance and maximizing solar gain efficiency, to simply mowing the grass.

Timmer standing next to the panels as installed.

“It’s a great retirement job for somebody,” Timer said of the mowing job.

The fields are leased from their current owners. The amounts they rent for are confidential, but Veilbig says that they are advantageous to farming families because their rate is steady for the length of the decades-long contract, not at all dependent on market fluctuations that people who make their living off of the agricultural industry have to deal with. He also claimed it was a good alternative to selling the land to developers, since the land would now be used to generate power rather than becoming just another subdivision.

One section of the panels completed, next to another section that hasn't been completed. Like in Washtenaw County, there is a fence to keep animals like deer from wandering into the installation. But note: the Washtenaw County location would be surrounded by rows of evergreen trees, which is required by both York & Augusta Townships for this kind of installation

York and Augusta’s installation would look slightly different because both townships require a “screen” of evergreen trees to keep the farm from being seen by the neighbors. Shiawassee does not require that, but the developer said it worked on a case by case basis with the neighbors there, to provide a screen of trees of they wanted it.

Augusta Township officials did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.

Headline image credit: Ranger Power

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