Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Firm plans Michigan state's largest wind farm - 07/10/05

Firm plans state's largest wind farm - 07/10/05
Firm plans state's largest wind farm

Lake Michigan project aims to provide cheap, clean energy; critics say windmills will mar view.

By Charlie Cain, and Mark Hornbeck / Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

Rich VanderVeen of Mackinaw Power says his windmill proposal would generate electricity for all 27,000 people in Oceana County.

States grab power
These five states have the most wind energy installed by capacity. Michigan, which ranks 24th, has 2.4 megawatts.

California: 2,096 megawatts

Texas: 1,293 megawatts

Iowa: 632 megawatts

Minnesota: 615 megawatts

Wyoming: 285 megawatts

Source: American Wind Energy Association


The most ambitious wind power project in Michigan history is taking shape in rural Oceana County on the picturesque shores of Lake Michigan.

With hopes of bringing this state up to speed with the nation's fastest growing source of electricity, Rich VanderVeen of Grand Rapids-based Mackinaw Power has proposed a 21-turbine wind farm on an elevated 8,000 acres of farmland north of Muskegon.

The 230-foot turbines would share the land with cherry and apple orchards and fields of asparagus. VanderVeen says his windmills would generate electricity for all 27,000 people who live in the county -- tapping a natural resource that is in endless supply and cranks out power without pollution or foreign energy sources.

"Wind power is not the silver bullet, or the end-all, be-all, but it does provide power with no air pollution and at long-term competitive prices," VanderVeen said.

Michigan is behind the curve on this emerging power source. Just three turbines exist in the state today, two run by VanderVeen in Mackinac County and the third in Traverse City, operated by the local power and light company. Combined, they produce less than 1 percent of the state's electricity.

But with natural gas prices tripling in recent years, and lingering concerns about nuclear power and greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal, increasing attention is shifting to renewable energy sources like wind power.

As of last year, the United States was generating 6,400 megawatts of wind power, enough to furnish electricity to 1.6 million households. Some estimates put investment in wind-harnessing equipment at more than $3 billion this year.

Energy experts say Michigan has considerable wind power potential -- particularly along the shoreline in the windy northwest part of the state. Detractors say the towering turbines would mar the beauty of the state's Gold Coast. Backers say derricks could be built offshore, out of view, to harness the strongest gusts.

"We are behind in this area, but we're doing some things to catch up," said Bob Nelson, outgoing member of the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates the electric industry.

He noted that other states require that as much as 10 percent of electric power be provided by renewable power sources by a certain date. Nelson said Michigan needs a similar law that starts at a more modest target.

Earlier this year, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich called for wind farms generating 3,000 megawatts of power to be built in his state by 2012. In Pennsylvania, Gov. Edward Rendell announced in January that a Spanish wind turbine maker will begin building a manufacturing plant in his state this year. In Colorado, voters there passed a measure in November requiring utilities to provide 10 percent of electricity by renewable sources, including wind, by 2015.

Asked why Michigan lags, Nelson said: "The utilities haven't supported it. They say the market should control what generation is built. In other states, they don't have as significant a utility lobby."

A Detroit News review of campaign finance records showed the state's two main utilities contributed nearly $1.6 million to state officials in the last three election cycles, including $265,000 to members of the Legislature who had direct oversight over utility issues.

But Nelson notes Consumers Energy is in the process of awarding $5 million to renewable energy providers, possibly including VanderVeen, who began pumping wind-generated electricity into the Consumers power grid four years ago. Detroit Edison, the state's other major utility, eventually will follow suit.

David Joos, CEO of Consumers Energy, said the state should rely on wind to meet a small piece of the electricity demand.

"It's never going to be a big player. And there's an intense debate about windmills themselves. Some people think they're beautiful symbols of environmentally responsible power, and others think they're sight pollution and they hurt the bird population," Joos said.

He said the windmills in Mackinaw County are available 20 percent of the time -- when the wind is blowing -- so they can't be counted on as a primary power source.

"We can't ask our residential customers to only use their appliances when the wind is blowing," he said.

Anthony Earley Jr., CEO of Detroit Edison, also has doubts about the prominence wind can play in the state's electric market.

"On the edges, yeah, if we can build some new windmills it will help. It will slow down the need for building plants," he said.

"The problem is you can't store electricity," so it's impossible to save power generated on windy days, he said.

In Oceana County, one local township has approved VanderVeen's project, and the county board unanimously recommended it. But the zoning board in another township has voted against it. The local zoning ordinance sets requirements on placement of the turbines that would be impossible to meet, VanderVeen says.

"The people who would benefit from lease payments ($6,000 to $10,000 a year) on their land were in favor of it, but there was a lot of opposition from people worried about the noise, looks and effect on land values," said Allen Aerts, Weare Township supervisor. "They were overwhelmed by the idea of 21 of them (turbines)."

VanderVeen said he's plugging ahead, trying to line up financial backing, and he hopes to convince the township board to reconsider.

"The lease payments would be enough to save some family farms," he said.

In the meantime, state Rep. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, has introduced two bills calling for statewide zoning standards on windmills, taking the decision out of the hands of the townships.

"It's important we develop alternative energy sources. It's good for the environment and the economy," said Walker, who hopes his legislation will come up for a vote this fall. "The problem is individual townships are zoning windmills out of their area. We need a statewide policy, because wind is a statewide resource."

You can reach Mark Hornbeck at (313) 222-2470 or mhornbeck@detnews.com.