By now you have probably seen the solar panels on Burcham Drive just to the west of the roundabout at Park Lake Road. Built on a capped landfill, the panels are now producing power for homes, businesses and city buildings in East Lansing and Lansing. Soon, you also will see native grasses and flowers blooming around and between the structures.
The solar park, which came online on Jan. 1, 2019, includes 1,000 solar panels that produce enough energy to supply the equivalent of about 40 East Lansing homes according to John Kinch, executive director of Michigan Energy Options, the organization that leads the community solar project.
The second phase of the project involves planting native perennial grasses and flowers. These will reduce the need for mowing and irrigation and will benefit pollinators like bees, butterflies and birds.
This is value-added to the solar park, Kinch says, because “not only do we re-purpose marginal lands for clean energy production, but we restore habitat with native plants and grasses, too.”
Michigan Wildflower Farm, based in Portland, was contracted to provide native ground cover for the site.
“We planted ten pounds of native flower and grass seed at the site in November of 2019,” says Esther Durnwald, who owns the farm with her husband Bill. “We planted four different seed mixes for three-season blooms.”
Native plants provide excellent food and habitat for pollinators, but Durnwald adds, “they can take up to three growing seasons to really fill in and look beautiful. It takes patience.”
Meanwhile, flowering annuals will be planted to fill in and beautify the site. Annuals are often used to fill in while natives take hold, Durnwald says.
“We started prepping for seeding in early December  and we are on schedule to start planting this spring,” says Brandon Malaski, operations manager at Michigan Energy Options.
Michigan Energy Options plans to install signs at the site, to help educate the public about community solar programs and native plants.
“East Lansing is fortunate to be one of a very few community solar energy programs in Michigan,” Kinch says.
Re-purposing a former landfill
Community Solar projects allow residents and businesses who otherwise might not be able to install solar panels at their own locations to support local “green” renewable energy.
While renewable energy is the most obvious reason for installing a community solar park in East Lansing, Kinch has other motives as well.
“We are re-purposing marginal lands,” Kinch says. The solar panels on Burcham Drive are installed on a retired landfill. The property is monitored, but has remained otherwise unused for decades.
Residents of East Lansing and Lansing are already enjoying benefits of the Burcham Solar Park, which provides power for customers who leased solar panels at the outset of the project. Our household in the Oakwood neighborhood leased 10 panels, and gets about 50 percent of the power for our home from solar in summer months.
“In winter it’s more like 15 percent,” my spouse, Greg Bonito, said.
Operating independently in 19 states and the District of Columbia, Community Solar programs are led by local organizations such as East Lansing’s Michigan Energy Options. Here, Michigan Energy Options negotiated with the City of East Lansing and the Lansing Board of Water and Light (BWL) to secure land, install solar panels, and tap into the grid.
The panels are leased to the City and local residents for 25 years, which is the expected life of the equipment. BWL then credits participating customers the value of the solar power produced by their panels.
The typical model of community solar calls for the solar company to purchase, install, and maintain the solar panels, so residents can enjoy the benefits without the installation and upkeep needs.
“When installed in brownfields like Burcham Park, solar parks serve many purposes,” Kinch says.