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CEO Podcast: Drew Vielbig, Ranger Power

January 16, 2023 Podcasts

As a growing number of municipalities and companies commit to carbon neutrality goals, the demand for renewable energy sources increases. One organization that is helping achieve that vision is Ranger Power. Since 2017, Ranger Power has worked collaboratively with local communities to bring new utility-scale solar projects and investment to the Midwest.

In this podcast, Ranger Power development manager Drew Vielbig discusses with Paul Krutko, Ann Arbor SPARK president and CEO, how it is partnering with Michigan communities to provide utility companies with renewable energy resources.

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Paul Krutko:

Welcome to Ann Arbor SPARK CEO Podcasts — Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name is Paul Krutko and I’m the president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK.

Welcome to a series of conversations with key leaders from industry sectors.

With me today is Drew Vielbig, development manager at Ranger Power, a solar energy development company committed to working closely with landowners to bring new investment and clean energy to their communities. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today Drew, we really appreciate it.

We always like to get a little bit of background, you know, on how people got to where they are in their careers. You came into the renewable energy space by way of a project at your family’s fifth-generation farm. Tell us how that started, and how it got you to where you are now in terms of leading this activity at Power Ranger.

Drew Vielbig:

I’m still early on in my career. I’ve been working in renewables for about three and a half years. I grew up on my family’s farm in Michigan pretty close to Fowlerville on Grand River. That’s where I was raised. That’s where I worked in the summers growing up until I went off to school at Grand Valley to get my degree.

Around 2017, my family was approached by Ranger Power about a potential solar project in Shiawassee County, Michigan. Today, this is the Assembly Solar Project, which is the largest active solar project in the Midwest. But back in 2017, it was still just kind of an idea.

As I was kind of working through my undergrad at Grand Valley, I started as an intern with Ranger Power. I was able to learn more about the industry as I was kind of wrapping out my degree. When I graduated in 2019, I was fortunate enough to be able to come on full-time with Ranger Power. Since that time, I’ve been managing a handful of projects

across the state and development.

I certainly take a lot of pride in being able to continue working in Michigan especially, and then being able to work with family farms like my own.

Paul Krutko:

Tell me a little bit more about that. When you say largest, give me and the folks that are listening what you’re talking about in terms of size.

Drew Vielbig:

The Assembly Solar project is divided up into three phases that total 239 megawatts of electricity. A ballpark figure for that project is around 1,500 acres total and it generates enough electricity to power approximately 35,000 homes in Michigan.

Paul Krutko:

Okay, and you describe it as Ranger Power working with farmers and farm families on their properties. Can you describe that a little bit more? Is it the notion that this is an additional activity on their farms, or is it that they’re completely moving away from their role in terms of agriculture?

Drew Vielbig:

There are a couple of different ways to look at it. Typically, the first step in the project development process is just going out and meeting with these large landowners that we’ve identified as having suitable properties for these types of projects. Oftentimes these are farms that you know might be several 100 acres, or even, well over 1,000 acres.

It’s most common that a farmer might consider including a portion of their overall farm in a solar project. If the farm is enrolled in the project, you know that land wouldn’t be farmed actively. It would be basically laying fallow while the project is operational. From a farmer’s perspective, they’d be receiving an annual consistent new source of revenue for the portion of land that’s enrolled in the solar project. Then they’re still able to continue farming the other portion of their farm.

Paul Krutko:

Is there — I’m going a little bit off the questions we have, but I’m just very curious — is there a minimum size that you guys are looking for, that makes sense for Ranger Power and would make sense for a particular farm?

Drew Vielbig:

Yes, the projects that we develop are typically 100 megawatts and larger. We estimate it takes about five acres of solar panels to generate one megawatt of electricity, so we’re looking at projects at a minimum size of about 500 acres. The reason for that is that the larger projects achieve better economies of scale, and as a result, become more cost competitive as we’re marketing this power to utilities throughout the state.

Paul Krutko:

I know that Ranger Power works closely with the electric utilities here in Michigan, one of which is Consumer’s Energy, as a part of their clean energy plan to increase renewable energy. It’s planning to eliminate coal electricity by 2025 and achieve net-zero carbon by 2040. Tell us how the work being done by Ranger Power is helping with those goals.

Drew Vielbig:

Both of Michigan’s largest utilities have put forward pretty aggressive goals over the course of the next decade and a half to phase out coal and replace electricity generation with renewable sources. Solar power today is the cheapest form of electricity available on the market, so it’s naturally very well slated to make up the new need for power resulting from taking these coal plants offline.

In addition to that, there’s been a big increase in corporate demand for renewables. For example, our auto manufacturers have put forward goals to transition to 100 percent renewables. That’s helping to drive the demand for both solar and wind projects in the state.

You mentioned Consumers Energy. To date, we’ve agreed to sell Consumers 150 megawatts of electricity on the Hartwood Solar Project in Hillsdale County which will be operational in 2024. We’ve also agreed to sell them 100 megawatts of electricity on the River Fork project down in Calhoun County. In addition to that, we have a partnership with DTE on the Assembly Solar project for 79 megawatts of electricity and 160 megawatts with MPPA and Lansing Board of Water and Light on that project as well.

Paul Krutko:

Wow! That’s fantastic. One of the things that I know in terms of the company’s mission statement — the direction that the company is going — is this notion of a community-first approach. That’s a priority for Ranger Power. What does that mean for Michiganders and a community-first approach?

Drew Vielbig:

It means a few things. I think Ranger has been successful across the Midwest for a few reasons. You know, I think one thing that differentiates us from other developers working in this space really is a commitment to being open and transparent in the communities that we’re working in. About what we’re looking to develop. A couple of examples. Before we file any permit applications with these local townships that we’re working with, project developers like myself will go out and knock on the doors of all of the neighbors of these projects to try to make introductions, answer questions, and to try to get feedback from them on how they would like to see the project considered.

The benefit for us is, we can work to address those concerns in the applications that we plan to submit, and in many cases, we can even make design considerations on the project based on that feedback.

We also try to meet very early on with local government officials and stakeholders, usually over a year in advance of filing applications to start developing those relationships and answering questions.

I think it’s important to stress some of the benefits that these projects bring to the communities that we work in. One project that I’m working on right now is the Headland Solar project in northwestern Livingston County. This is a project that we anticipate will create about $2M in new tax revenue in the first year and generate around 300 new construction jobs, many of which will be able to be filled locally by people that live within this community. There are a lot of different benefits that come along with these projects.

It is important for developers to be mindful of the fact that we’re proposing a change in land use in a rural area that hasn’t historically seen a ton of change. So, it’s on us to be responsible with that development.

Paul Krutko:

Okay, that’s good to understand and you touched on that there are lots of challenges that you’ve described and how you’re responding to some of those. Some of them are technical, some of them are community issues. I think, to your credit as a company, you have been navigating a really complex landscape, and in helping to create this new positive, environmental impact, but also, demonstrating to the surrounding community how that can be beneficial.

I’m going to close out with, what are the technology and advancements that are happening in the solar power space, and what are the trends you are seeing in the industry?

Drew Vielbig:

One of the big ones, first and foremost, is the Inflation Reduction Act, which was passed last year. This is some of the most meaningful legislation that has been passed certainly in my lifetime to make meaningful investments in renewables. It does a few things that really affect the work my company is doing. One of them is the extension of the investment tax credit through 2032 which was originally set to expire at the end of this year. The IRA also will help spur domestic manufacturing for renewables which I think is huge. Historically, many components of solar and wind projects have been manufactured overseas and the IRA helps to expand manufacturing and renewables.

Because of this, my company expects that solar panels on our future projects will be built using American-made panels for the first time on a large scale.

In addition to this, you know, we see expansions and battery storage technology increasing. Things like that.

Paul Krutko:

Very good. Well, listen. I want to let you go. Thanks for joining us today and giving us this overview about the company and all the good work that you’re doing. You know, the City of Ann Arbor and other organizations here in and around our area that we serve are very interested in advancing zero carbon goals. We are really looking forward to continuing to work with Ranger Power and finding more sites that will add to the inventory of solar power availability here.

I want to thank you for speaking with us today. I also want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations who are working hard to create the Ann Arbor region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Arbor SPARK. For more information about SPARK, you can find us on the web at annarborusa.org also on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. For more information about Ranger Power, please visit rangerpower.com.

Drew Vielbig Bio

Drew Vielbig manages the development of several utility-scale solar projects throughout Ranger Power’s portfolio. He grew up farming his family’s fifth-generation farm in Livingston County, Michigan. Drew came to Ranger Power via a utility-scale solar project on his family’s farm and became interested in the benefits of renewable energy. His responsibilities include land acquisition, community, and stakeholder outreach, and permitting. Drew holds a BBA in Marketing and Management from Grand Valley State University.