More farmers may lease land for solar projects

Capital News Service

LANSING – As solar energy soars in popularity in Michigan, solar leasing has become a  profitable option for farm owners.

Under agreements with private solar developers, farmers can earn rental payments varying from $500 to $2,000 per acre per year, said Charles Gould, the bioenergy & agricultural energy conservation educator at Michigan State University Extension.

“That’s considerably more than what they would be making from growing crops, grains and corn,” Gould said. “The current market price for those commodities doesn’t approach $1,000  an acre.”

However, owners need to give up use of that land in exchange for signing up, he said. “The lease agreement can be up to 25 to 30 years, so that land is no longer in production.”

The installation of solar energy generation on farmland should follow local master plans and zoning ordinances, according to MSU Extension. A master plan makes sure the land is suitable for the scale a of solar project and zoning ordinances set the legal standards for site selection.

Michigan gets about one-quarter of its electricity from renewable sources, including solar, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

It’s hard to predict whether a solar lease undermines the value of farmland, said Matthew Kapp, the government relations specialist at the Michigan Farm Bureau.

“There are many variables that contribute to value. Variables such as market conditions, location, soil type, as well as land use, all play a role in determining farmland value,” Kapp said.

“Each farmer needs to evaluate what’s the best use for their land,” he said. “Some farmers would say solar energy is a positive and some would say it’s a negative, depending on their own perspective.”

To some extent, taking land out of agricultural use will reduce production, said Richard Harlow, the manager of the Farmland Preservation Program at the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

The program aims at preserving farmland for agriculture. It provides tax benefits and exemptions from various special assessments, according to the department.

Harlow said, “Farm owners in the program are not permitted to put solar panels on the farmland.”

Michigan has 3.3 million of its 10 million acres of farmland in the preservation program, he said. “Renewable energy is good, but we are not making any new farmland and we need to preserve the farmland we have.”

Agricultural solar energy development is still in the early stage, said Charlotte Jameson, the director of energy policy and legislative affairs at the Michigan Environmental Council.

“We are not really at the point that we were need to worry about overuse of farmland and solar,” Jameson said.

Jameson suggested redeveloping brownfield sites — abandoned and contaminated industrial sites — for solar projects.

In Michigan, the price of solar panels and related equipment declined 55 percent over last five years.

Solar energy production in the state grew from 5.7 megawatts in 2016 to 107 megawatts in 2017, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

However, it produces only 0.1 percent of the state’s electricity.

Traverse City opened its M-72 solar project last October with the intent to power 100 percent of city operations with renewable energy by 2020.

The project is a collaboration among the city, its municipally-owned utility and Heritage Sustainable Energy, a private company.

It is under a solar lease agreement on former farmland.

“This year the city will continue to focus on energy efficiency measures — building by building — and also work with Traverse City Light & Power on additional opportunities to procure renewable energy,” said Sarna Salzman, a member of the Grand Traverse County Planning Commission.

Move underway to continue home weatherization aid

Capital News Service

LANSING — The Legislature is moving to continue helping low-income households become more energy-efficient after a recent lapse in funding. But some community organizations say current funding isn’t enough, and federal changes might jeopardize the program altogether.

The state Senate has passed a bill by Sen. Dale Zorn, R-Ida, to extend home weatherization assistance under the federal Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP) to 2022. State authorization to spend the money ran out last Sept. 30.

Cosponsors include Sens. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba; Goeff Hansen, R-Hart; and Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek. The bill is pending in the House Tax Policy Committee.

Weatherization includes home insulation, air leakage reduction and attic ventilation, according to the Menominee, Delta and Schoolcraft Community Action Agency based in Escanaba.

Before the lapse, at least 15 percent of the money was to be reserved for weatherization, according to state law — this is what Zorn’s bill aims to preserve. But while that money was budgeted this past year, the lapse means that money wasn’t distributed to community action agencies that provide weatherization services.

With the lapse in funding, low-income residents are missing out on improved energy efficiency, said Stephanie Kasprzak of the Monroe County Opportunity Program, which provides weatherization services to Lenawee, Jackson, Hillsdale and Monroe counties.

“Forty-eight out of 50 states set aside weatherization funding through LIHEAP, so this is pretty typical across the U.S.,” Kasprzak said. “It allows us to do more weatherization for low-income people and helps them be more self sufficient.”

More money ought to be reserved for home weatherization, said Mary Trucks, the executive director of FiveCAP, a nonprofit organization serving Lake, Mason, Manistee and Newaygo counties. She said she appreciates efforts to preserve the weatherization funding but said it’s not enough, especially in rural communities where house structures are often ill-prepared for winter.

The other 85 percent of LIHEAP funding goes to various energy assistance efforts, such as helping low-income residents pay their utility bills.

Zorn said that weatherizing homes and ensuring that they are energy-efficient could potentially decrease or eliminate the need for federal payouts to those households.

“If we can help low-income wage earners weatherize their homes and seal them up for winter, then their energy costs would decrease,” Zorn said. “That would help not only the family save money, but may also help the government by getting them off the energy assistance.”

Last October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services gave Michigan $141 million under LIHEAP — for both weatherization and energy assistance — for fiscal year 2018. In previous years, there have been additional, smaller federal grants later in the year as necessary.

Statewide, 490,529 of the nearly one million eligible low-income households received energy assistance in 2016, according to state data compiled by the Coalition to Keep Michigan Warm. The average assistance supplied per household was $325.

Even though less than half of eligible households receive energy assistance, community organizations still aren’t sufficiently funded, Trucks said.

“It’s a lack of money, not a lack of a local response,” she said. “We stand on the front line ready to provide services if the resources are there.”

Trucks said that a large percentage of low-income residents in rural communities are homeowners and often lack the resources to afford even routine repairs and maintenance.

Last year, FiveCAP had a “walk-away rate” of 80 percent, according to Trucks. That means the  organization couldn’t provide energy assistance or weatherization for those homes because other repairs unrelated to energy efficiency needed to be made first.

While in those cases, FiveCAP attempted to secure federal grants from other sources to make necessary repairs, Trucks said those funds were “few and far between.”

“Basically, what we’re doing is we’re leaving the homeowner out there un-weatherized and without a severe home repair that is only going to further compromise the house structure,” Trucks said. “There are no other resources — with the rare exception of U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development that has helped a few people.”

While Michigan attempts to shore up weatherization funding, there’s uncertainty at the federal level as to the future of LIHEAP as a whole.

In his 2019 budget proposal, President Donald Trump called for eliminating the program, a move that highlights the administration’s wish to eliminate federal programs it perceives as “ineffective.”

“LIHEAP is unable to demonstrate strong performance outcomes,” the budget plan reads. “The Government Accountability Office has raised concerns about fraud and abuse in the program in the past.” The GAO is a nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

Zorn said that his bill would require an annual report to the Legislature on LIHEAP’s effectiveness, which could then be passed on to the federal government to help determine whether the program was being exploited.

“If there is any fraud or misuse of funds, I think we would know that through that report,” Zorn said.

Trucks, who called current funding for low-income heating assistance “wholly inadequate,” said that the president is uninformed on the issue.

Trump “has no understanding of the challenges that low-income people face,” she said. “I have no knowledge of fraud. What we see is the challenges of trying to stretch the dollars to serve a great need, and coming up short.”

Help is out there for people whose homes are cold, drafty

Capital News Service

LANSING– Old Man Winter is an expensive guest in a home that hasn’t been weatherized.      

“The first time they think about having to turn the furnace on, people start to panic,” said Steve Taylor, home improvement programs manager at the Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency in Traverse City.

One way low-income families can reduce their energy costs is through weatherization, the process that makes homes more energy-efficient.

Michigan’s Weatherization Assistance Program provides free home energy conservation services to low income residents. These services reduce energy use, which helps to lower utility bills.

“A weatherization service provider can come into your home and see how energy efficient your home is,” said Bob Wheaton, public information officer at the Department of Health and Human Services. “They can assist you with things like air sealing, improving the ventilation and adding installation.”

Weatherization in cold states can reduce heating costs an average of 30 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

“Up here in northern Michigan, it’s a lot colder than other places,” said Valerie Williams, the housing and client services director at the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency in Alpena. “If you’re spending over six months of the year running your furnace, it should be efficient, and you should be able to keep that heat inside instead of it leaving through the cracks in your home.”

More than 1,500 Michigan homes have benefited from the Weatherization Assistance Program, Wheaton said. More than 300,000 homes have been weatherized since the program began in 1976.

The  Health and Human Services partners with community action ggencies to provide weatherization services across the state.

The Northwest Michigan Community Action Agency serves 10 counties in the Lower Peninsula, including Grand Traverse, Leelanau, Emmet, Wexford, Missaukee and Charlevoix counties.

In our region, with high rental rates, higher home prices and a predominance of propane as the source of home heating fuel, our program is extremely important for maintaining and creating affordable housing for people,” Taylor said.

This year it has the budget to weatherize 68 homes in 10 counties and have completed 18, Taylor said.

The Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency weatherizes roughly the same number of homes, between 65 and 75, across the 11 counties it serves.

Taylor said more requests for weatherization come in each day. In some counties, there is a four-year waiting list.

“In some of our counties we have probably 70-80 people waiting,” Taylor said. “Overall we probably have roughly 300 people on waiting lists throughout the 10 counties.”

Counties served by the agency have long waitlists too, Williams said.

In Ottawa County, 96 people are waiting to have their homes weatherized, said Michelle Brothers, weatherization coordinator at the Ottawa County Community Action Agency.

Wheaton said the department is working on reducing the waiting lists to help create more realistic expectations for customers.

Brothers said the number of houses the agency is able to weatherize each year fluctuates. Last year itcompleted 50, but she said because of a reduction in funding, this year it will do between 35 and 40.

Williams said the Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency spends an average of $6,000 per home. Some of the work that goes into this cost include replacing the furnace, putting in wall, attic and foundation insulation, sealing windows and doors and replacing appliances such as  refrigerators.

Michigan’s Weatherization Assistance Program is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. Funding varies from one agency to another. To be eligible for the program, a household income must be at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, that means their annual income must be under $49,200.

The program is not an emergency repair service, Taylor said. The process can take up two months.

The earlier a request is made, the better, he said. Homes can be weatherized all year long, and if it is done before temperatures drop, the homes will be more energy efficient when the cold weather hits and people begin to turn on their heat.

Wheaton said a weatherized home can save families up to $450 each year in energy costs.

These savings can prevent a family from having to turn to the Department of Health and Human Services for assistance in paying their energy bills.

“Our department often has to assist people in situations where they have fallen behind on their heating bills, have had their utilities shut off or are at risk of having their utilities shut off,” Wheaton said. “Weatherization can keep people from reaching that point.”

Taylor said he has experienced this in the counties he serves.

“We have numerous stories from people who used to require assistance paying their heating bills, are now proud of the fact they can pay their own bills,” he said. “People who used to seal off part of their home in the winter because they couldn’t afford to heat them can now use their homes.”

Major recycling scam ends in indictment

Capital News Service

LANSING — A bogus scheme to build an eco-friendly “green energy” waste processing facility in Detroit defrauded lenders and investors — including Chinese investors hoping to qualify for U.S. visas — of $4,475,000, according to a federal grand jury.

Project promoter Ronald Van Den Heuvel promised the victims that his Green Box-Detroit would build and operate a facility to recycle paper, process other waste and produce synthetic fuel, the indictment charged.

He also sought approval from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. (MEDC) to issue $95 million to $125 million in tax-exempt bonds toward the project’s $200 million price tag, legal documents said.

In a related civil suit against Van Den Heuvel and Green Box-Detroit, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said, “He claimed that he had developed a breakthrough recycling process that could turn post-consumer waste into usable products. He represented that the Green Box process would be both environmentally friendly and profitable, and would allow Green Box-Detroit to repay investors.”

But it was a scam because Van Den Heuvel never acquired the promised facility or equipment and used the money for other purposes, the indictment said.

The Detroit scheme was disclosed in a broad indictment accusing Van Den Heuvel of fraudulently obtaining more than $9 million in investments and loans in Wisconsin and Michigan between 2011 and 2015. He promised to “turn post-consumer waste from sources like fast food restaurants completely into usable consumer products and energy,” the U.S. Attorney’s office in Milwaukee said in announcing the indictment.

“As represented by Van Den Heuvel, the Green Box business plan was to purchase the equipment and facilities necessary to employ a proprietary process that could convert solid waste into consumer products and energy, without any wastewater discharge or landfilling of byproducts,” the indictment said.

Van Den Heuvel, who lives in De Pere, Wisconsin, diverted more than $3.9 million of the $9 million for personal uses, the indictment and SEC suit said. Among them: $44,000 for Green Bay Packers football tickets; $57,000 for court-ordered support for his ex-wife; $89,000 for a new Cadillac Escalade; $16,570 for his children’s private school tuition; and $33,000 for his wife’s dental work.

He also falsified financial statements that “grossly inflated his personal wealth and his companies’ assets,” the indictment said.

His defense lawyer, Robert LeBell of Milwaukee, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The primary victims of the Detroit project were nine investors from China who poured $4,475,000 into the failed endeavor. They’d hoped to become permanent residents — green card-holders — by investing at least $500,000 each under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services EB-5 Immigrant Investment Program.

Van Den Heuvel worked through Green Detroit Regional Center, which is owned by a Georgia law firm that is authorized to operate in Wayne, Livingston, St. Claire, Lapeer and Macomb counties, court documents said. The center finds “foreign clients, mainly from China and South Korea, to invest in large alternative energy projects,” according to its website.

The Green Box-Detroit project was portrayed as creating 35 direct and indirect jobs per each Chinese investor.

“Green Detroit Regional Center promoted the EB-5 investments in Green Box Detroit based on Van Den Heuvel’s representations,” the SEC suit said. It said the chief executive officer of the Green Detroit Regional Center, Georgia lawyer Simon Ahn, marketed the project to investors through immigration consultants in China.

Neither Ahn nor Green Detroit Regional Center have been charged or sued by the SEC.

Ahn said, “If the charges are true, it is completely shocking to learn about the extent that Ron Van Den Heuvel hid the truth from me,” the center and investors.

“All of us visited the plants in Wisconsin many times, including the potential site in Detroit, and everything checked out fine. All the financials from a recognized accounting firm indicated that everything was proceeding on track, Ahn said.

The SEC suit said Van Den Heuvel falsely told investors that the MEDC had approved tax exempt bonds for the project. However, the MEDC rejected the request after discovering five tax liens, one construction lien, two state tax warrants, four civil judgments and three civil lawsuits, according to court documents.

“Van Den Heuvel did not satisfy MEDC’s concerns. He did not provide additional information to the MEDC, and did not provide a satisfactory explanation for the issues that it had raised,” the SEC suit said.

MEDC vice president of marketing and communications Emily Guerrant said “Yes, they did approach us. No, we never engaged with them.”

Ahn said it is likely that a receivership will be established to help Chinese investors recoup their money. He said it is “hard to determine at this point” whether they will qualify for green cards.

The grand jury accused Van Den Heuvel of wire fraud and illegal financial transactions. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine. In addition, the federal government is seeking to recoup the proceeds of the alleged fraud.

Earlier this month, Van Den Heuvel pleaded guilty under a separate 2016 indictment in a bank fraud conspiracy case. Charges against his wife and a bank loan officer in that case are still open.

Farmers uninterested in renting land for bioenergy crops


Capital News Service

LANSING — When Scott Swinton, an agriculture, food and resource economics professor at Michigan State University, asked landowners if they’d be interested in renting their land for bioenergy crops, the initial response was unexpected.

“The first thing we found was that a number of people that we sent questionnaires to were hoping MSU was secretly trying to find people they could rent land from to grow bioenergy crops,” Swinton said.

“I got scores of phone calls from people telling me they would love to rent their land to MSU if we were interested.”

But that wasn’t what Swinton was looking for. Instead, he was trying to study the willingness of farmers to rent land that isn’t used for crops. Continue reading

Trump’s budget cuts could devastate Great Lakes restoration

Capital News Service

LANSING — Eliminating the $300 million Great Lakes Restoration Initiative could lead to devastating natural and economic effects on coastal Michigan communities, defenders of the program said.

President Donald Trump has proposed killing the initiative, along with the Michigan Sea Grant and nearly a third of the funding for the Environmental Protection Agency.

The possible elimination of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has compelled Michigan lawmakers, environmentalists, scientists and business owners to make a case for the program.

“It has benefited Muskegon greatly, hugely. We’ve received millions in dollars in federal funding to clean up White Lake and Muskegon Lake,” said Bob Lukens, Muskegon County community development director. Continue reading

Marches in 10 Michigan cities will celebrate science April 22


Capital News Service

LANSING — Scientists and advocates across 10 Michigan cities will step out of their labs and call attention to the value of science in the March for Science on April 22.

Launched by groups of scientists and researchers in Washington, D.C., earlier this year, the nonpartisan March for Science has expanded into 294 planned satellite marches across the nation and 394 worldwide.

The 10 Michigan cities scheduled to participate on Earth Day are Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Midland, Houghton, Marquette, Sault Ste. Marie and Petoskey.

Michigan efforts and the Lansing march were started by science enthusiasts Sara Pack and Sierra Owen of Lansing. Continue reading

Green energy expanding in Michigan communities


Capital News Service

LANSING — Northport, a village in Leelanau County, gets half the energy for its wastewater treatment plant from a community-owned wind turbine.

The village also claims the only 100 percent solar-powered golf course in the United States, according to Stanley “Skip” Pruss, former director of the Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth, who moved to Leelanau Township in 2008.

Solar energy is used to power the clubhouse and other operations.

“Our community members are feeling passionately that we are accelerating the transition to clean energy,” Pruss said. “Northport can be an example to other local communities in how to go about doing that. It’s a good way to go.”

Northport has been committed to a 100 percent Clean Energy plan since 2010, joining cities such as Grand Rapids and Traverse City as pioneers in Michigan’s transition from fossil fuels.
Continue reading

Faster decomposing trees can save energy costs


Researcher Steven Karlen studies plants in a greenhouse lab. Image:Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center

Researcher Steven Karlen studies plants in a greenhouse lab. Image:Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center

Capital News Service

LANSING — Poplars and other trees can be bred to break down more easily to make biofuel and other products such as paper, according to scientists at the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.

Their new study found that zip-lignin, an enzyme that indicates the high degradability of plants and that they injected into trees, is already in most plants. Plants that naturally have the highest amount can be selectively bred.

The center is a collaboration between the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Michigan State University and other partners. It was established by the U.S. Department of Energy.
Continue reading

State energy bill could increase costs for solar users


Capital News Service

LANSING — Environmental and renewable energy advocates are concerned that proposed legislation would discourage investment in clean energy.

Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, introduced bills in 2015 to meet the state’s energy requirements as coal plants continue to shut down as utilities use cleaner fuel sources over the next three years.

The bills have passed the Senate and await action by the House, where Nofs said he hopes to see them pass before the end of the year..

But some supporters of alternative energy say that new language added to the bill would create a utilities charge for state residents who use solar power to generate their electricity. The bill does not specify the amount, but gives the Public Service Commission the power to decide how much it would be. Continue reading