Michigan plans solar arrays for first 'green' prison, state park

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is planning a series of solar panel installations to create what would be Michigan’s first “green” prison, state park and fish hatchery.

A broad sustainability effort announced Thursday features renewable pilot programs, energy audits and building-level efforts that aim to reduce electricity consumption across state government to “lead by example” as Whitmer pushes to reduce carbon pollution and promote clean energy.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration is planning solar panel installations at the St. Louis Correctional Facility, Seven Lakes State Park and Oden State Fish Hatchery.

Plans include first-of-their-kind solar installations at the St. Louis Correctional Facility in Gratiot County, Seven Lakes State Park in Oakland County and the Oden State Fish Hatchery in Emmet County at the northern tip of the Lower Peninsula.

“These steps are a win-win for the environment and taxpayers,” Whitmer said in a statement. “By improving our government’s environmental footprint while lowering energy costs, we’re able to prove that sustainable practices can and will work across our state from rural, forested locations to downtown Detroit.” 

The Michigan Department of Corrections plans to seek bids from energy performance contractors to build a solar array at the St. Louis prison, where roughly six acres of land is available for use.

The prison uses a large amount of energy 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the goal is to generate as much as possible from on-site solar panels, said Department of Corrections spokesman Chris Gautz.

The overhaul may include more use of energy-efficient lighting, electronic water controls and systems to use rain water for non-drinking needs like toilet flushes that can add up in prisons, Gautz said.

The prison project is expected to cost $7.4 million over 15 years, but the state expects it would have paid $8.6 million for electricity over that same span, producing a net savings of $1.2 million.

“It’s going to greatly reduce our energy consumption and will also have a payback over time that’s going to save us money in the long run,” Gautz predicted. “We’re excited about having the first green prison in the state.”

Separately, a Department of Natural Resources pilot program aims to integrate renewable energy resources into daily operations at state parks across Michigan, starting with Seven Lakes and the Oden Hatchery.

The department plans to use a combination of solar arrays at both locations to produce enough energy to “completely offset” the parks’ electrical use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It expects to seek bid proposals in 2019 to complete construction by December 2020.

The state is planning roof and potential parking lot solar arrays at Seven Lakes, a roughly 1,500-acre state park in Holly where more than 300,000 visitors come for camping, boating, hiking, hunting, fishing and more.

Roof and ground arrays are planned for Oden, the state’s second-most visited fish hatchery. The Alanson hatchery rears roughly 650,000 brown and rainbow trout each year.

It uses groundwater drawn from five separate wells spread around the hatchery, and the large volume of water “needed to rear healthy fish” requires large amounts of energy, said Natural Resources Deputy Director Shannon Hanna.

Michigan's six fish hatcheries combine to account for 15% of the Department of Natural Resources' total energy use, according to a recent audit. Oden used an annual average of 1.5 million kilowatt hours of energy over the past five years, according to the DNR.

Combined, all six state hatcheries used nearly 7.3 million kilowatt hours. By comparison, the average residential customer in the United States used about 10,000 kilowatt hours of energy in 2017, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The Department of Natural Resources expects the solar projects to be relatively “cost neutral,” Hanna said, noting the state will use Oden and Seven Lakes as test runs for efforts that could expand to state parks across Michigan.

“We’re going to use these pilot programs as sort of blazing the trail on a lot of things in state government,” she said.

Beyond the renewable energy projects, the Michigan Department of Technology, Management and Budget is expected to expand sustainability and efficiency to “hundreds” of other government buildings and structures across the state.

Similar efforts, including LED and motion-sensing lighting, have already saved the state $6 million and cut energy consumption 10% in 41 buildings the directly managed by the department, said spokesman Caleb Buhs.

Officials have begun energy audits at some of the state departments that use the most energy, including corrections, health and human services, natural resources and transportation.

Whitmer in February signed an executive order committing the state to advancing goals of the international Paris Agreement, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.

President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew the United States from the agreement in 2017, but Whitmer’s order pledged the state to accelerate carbon reduction efforts and directed departments and agencies to implement and administer laws accordingly.