Grand Rapids’ Proving Ground for Storage

A section of Michigan’s second-largest city is serving as a laboratory for developing utility-scale storage.
Circuit West, Grand Rapids, Mich.

By most measures, the battery storage project dedicated last last month in Grand Rapids, Mich., is modest in scale. First of its kind in the city, the project encompasses 1,800 solar panels and a 500-kilowatt battery storage system in a 13-block area. The array can power up to 100 homes by means of the storage system. 

But the project’s team members—Rockford Construction, Consumers Energy, an electric utility; and the city of Grand Rapids—maintain that its significance reaches well beyond the boundaries of its downtown footprint. “Circuit West is a one-of-a-kind energy generation, storage and district system that has radically impacted our ability to cost-effectively meet the needs of residents and businesses in Grand Rapids’ West Side while reflecting our commitment to renewables and reduced energy consumption,” said Rockford Construction CEO Mike VanGessel.

Above all, the partnership regards the Circuit West solar energy storage system as a test case for a cost-effective way to install urban solar across a wide swath of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. Creating efficient forms of battery storage is a priority as utilities look beyond the conventional model of the large-scale, centralized power plant. A crucial factor in making the transition to wind, solar and other intermittent renewable sources is developing effective storage forms of energy, noted Roger Morgenstern, a spokesperson for Consumers Energy.

Mike VanGessel, Rockford Construction

 “The solar battery storage and other electric grid modernization work we’re doing here will be studied over the next two to three years to see what is scalable for our 1.8 million electric customers,” he added.

Launched in July 2017 as a partnership of Consumers Energy and Rockford Construction, Circuit West features a variety of uses within its 13 blocks, ranging from businesses and non-profits, multifamily housing, retail, and restaurants. Also present are private business owners and community residents.

Testing Utility-Scale Solar

Consumer Energy’s proposed plan, up for regulatory approval later this year—calls for  5,000 megawatts of solar development and an end of coal-fired electric generation by 2040, and an increased use of all forms of renewable energy from 10 percent to 40 percent. The challenge is now to make innovation districts like Circuit West economically viable for utility-scale solar, Morgenstern said.  

Rockford Construction decided to build its headquarters to LEED Platinum standards on Grand Rapids’ West Side several years ago, committing at the same time to link nearby development opportunities with a focus on energy efficiency and sustainability. Rockford “approached Consumers Energy on how we could work on a grid of the future, and the concept of Circuit West was born,” Morgenstern said.

Rockford currently manages approximately 375,000 square feet within the district, which he characterizes as “an extremely vibrant and diverse community,” VanGessel said. Consumers Energy plans to break ground on a new building within Circuit West this year, and additional projects are expected during the next several years.

Rockford is also considering other locations and applications for the Circuit West technology. The solar array, for instance, was placed on top of a parking deck, thereby reducing maintenance costs for services like snow removal.

Close coordination with stakeholders during development and construction, as well as street improvements, have reduced first costs for Circuit West by 10 percent, VanGessel noted. That makes “the entire effort financially and logically feasible.”

It appears that the sustainable focus of the development is resonating with business and consumers, too. “Our spaces are filling up almost as fast as they are built, and we’ve been approached by other companies interested in building new facilities within Circuit West,” VanGessel reported.