The story behind Washtenaw Food Hub's 608 panel solar array

Visit the Washtenaw Food Hub (WFH) on a sunny day and you'll catch a glimpse of blue and twinkling silver as 608 solar panels reflect off of the roof of the organization's buildings. Freshly installed, these solar panels now make up one of the largest solar arrays in the county. 

Richard Andres, owner of Tantre Farms and principal at the Food Hub, says the solar panels were installed as part of the Food Hub's mission to create a self-reliant food system. The four year old limited liability corporation serves as a landing place for all parts of the local foods system; a place for retailers and farmers to do transactions and a place for eaters, workers and distributors to learn from each other.

With three commercial kitchens on site, WFH utilizes a significant amount of energy each day. Yes, ovens need power; but most of the energy goes into cooling produce, a particularly energy intensive process as summer heats up. The power of the sun rays are essential throughout the growing and harvesting process as they first coax seedlings into existence and now they also help protect the resulting produce from the same heat.

The Washtenaw Food Hub's new clean energy system connects to the DTE Energy power grid, meaning that the utility will purchase and distribute any excess power. DTE is involved with a number of solar projects across Southeast Michigan, including an installation in Ann Arbor Township that will be the state's largest upon completion.

With WFH's focus on local and sustainable food, it's fitting their solar array is locally-produced as well. Michigan-based companies were employed throughout the process, from crystalline silicon panels manufactured by Saginaw's Suniva to the racking system manufactured by Albion-based Patriot Solar Group. As a finishing touch, Homeland Solar and McNaughton McKay Electric Company, headquartered in Madison Heights, installed the final product. 

A solar energy system can be costly to install, but over time, an array will pay for itself in savings on energy bills. The WFH array can produce around 50 megawatts of energy annually, offering Andres potentially up to 90 percent lower utility costs for the company.

Government incentives are helping Andres shorten the time expected to break even (and potentially turn a profit) on his investment.  A 25% grant from the USDA's Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) offset the cost of the panels.  The WFH--and any other installations of solar energy systems completed before the ened of 2016-- qualify for a 30% federal tax credit. In combination with the 90% decrease in utility costs, these savings made solar a viable option economically for WFH.

As the most environmentally friendly electricity generation option available today, solar energy fits in well with the Food Hub's triple bottom line mission, according to Andres.

"I feel like for us it's an opportunity and a step in the right direction," he said. "It's been a pleasure to see it happen." 

Connecting farms to institutions has also been a long-time focus of the Ecology Center's Sustainable Foods and Healthy Communities program.

"Food Hubs are an important solution for the viability of small to mid-sized farmers," states Nicki Milgrom, the program's director. "These family farmers are stewards of our land and environment in an increasingly industrialized and polluting food system. Their ecologically focused approach reminds us that food production has implications for many aspects of our lives, including climate, water and more. The Washtenaw Food Hub's new solar array is a great visualization of the interconnectedness of what we sometimes approach as different issue areas in our everyday work."

Photo:  Mark Doman, Tom Huber, Pet Fremuth and Mark Dorogi (from left), who worked on the installation of the Washtenaw Food Hub's solar array pose with some of the new panels. The rest of the 608 panel array is spread across the Food Hub's building's roofs.