As 700+ Turbines Spin, Michigan Wind Forum Mulls Next Steps

January 14, 2015 | |

Several local leaders, utility officials, and wind developers who helped develop wind farms in Gratiot County will share insights at Tuesday's Michigan Wind Energy Forum, in East Lansing.
Several local leaders, utility officials, and wind developers who helped develop wind farms in Gratiot County will share insights at Tuesday’s Michigan Wind Energy Forum, in East Lansing. 

It is getting to be crunch time for wind power development in Michigan, so next week’s Michigan Wind Energy Forum, scheduled for Tuesday at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Center in East Lansing, is arriving right on time.

Ten years ago the state had just three utility-scale wind turbines—one in Traverse City and two just south of the Mackinac Bridge—producing just over 2 megawatts of power.

Now, thanks to a 2008 state law requiring Michigan utilities to get 10 percent of their power from renewables by 2015, Michigan has more than 700 turbines spinning at 19 wind farms across the state, able to churn out 1,455 megawatts.

Utilities have met their renewables goals, mostly through wind power, but the legislation expires in December

The mandate worked well: New turbines attracted more than $2 billion in investments, helped trigger the rise of at least 39 turbine component manufacturers in the state, and employed thousands of engineers, factory workers, construction crews, and operational and maintenance personnel.

The mandate also helped cut the price of wind power in Michigan by half; it now costs far less than new coal power and is competitive with new gas power. Crucially, it also helped cut health- and climate-damaging emissions from fossil-fueled generation, produced new income for farmers hosting turbines, and generated new tax revenue for strapped local schools and governments.

The Snyder administration has done its work well, too. It set the table for future renewables policies with a series of remarkably open and well attended public forums in 2013 that gathered testimony from experts and everyday citizens about clean energy. The process produced a report confirming what advocates had long claimed: Wind power makes good economic sense, and moving to 30 percent wind would produce little, if any, rise in the cost of electricity and few, if any, technical problems.

Despite the good news, the industry faces two significant challenges.

There’s the political challenge: Although Gov. Snyder wants legislation this year to boost the state’s newest large industry, some legislators are resisting, either because they don’t trust renewables, or reject mandates for ideological, not practical, reasons.

And, as with so many things these days, there’s the “NIMBY” problem, most often based on alleged economic and health concerns regarding wind power. That opposition surfaced most recently in Huron County, where fully one-third of the state’s new turbines stand. County commissioners are now considering a moratorium on further development.

Larry Flowers, who designed Tuesday’s forum program in consultation with some of the state’s wind industry stakeholders, says the event will tackle both challenges.

“This will not be a cheerleading session,” promised Flowers, who is producing the event as a consultant for the American Wind Energy Association. “We want to talk about what actually is happening, what are the challenges, what are the benefits of the 1,400 megawatts of wind power now installed in Michigan.

“There is a much bigger potential, and we want people to talk about how they can develop that potential in a responsible way.”

Policy, Politics, and Michigan Wind Power

Flowers, who worked for AWEA for three years before becoming a consultant, cut his teeth on wind power during the last 20 years of his 30-year career at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Boulder, Colo. His work there marks him as an engineering and community relations expert, not a political observer, so he wouldn’t comment on the likelihood of policy progress in the state Legislature. But he and forum planners did build policy and political discussions into Tuesday’s program.

In fact, Valerie Brader, Snyder’s point person on energy policy, will officially open the forum with a welcoming speech.

Brader will surely not state any position on wind power that has not been stated by Michigan’s very cautious, step-by-step governor, who could mention wind, or at least renewables in general, in his upcoming State of the State address. Snyder is also expected to deliver a special message on energy sometime this spring.

The next speaker, Jose Zayas, who manages the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind & Water Program, could tap the powerful connection between water and energy—a potent brew in the Great Lakes State. One of renewable energy’s finest attributes, after all, is that it typically uses very little, if any, water.

However, the 9:45 a.m. panel, moderated by Michigan Public Service Commissioner Greg White, will discuss a political and policy hot potato—the U.S. EPA’s proposed new rule to regulate climate-changing greenhouse gases from power plants.

Known as Rule 111 D, it is the first-ever EPA rule pointed specifically at cutting carbon emissions from existing electrical generation, responsible for 40 percent of America’s CO2 output. The panel also includes, among others, Department of Environmental Quality Air Quality Section Chief Vince Hellwig.

The 1:45 p.m. Michigan Legislative Roundtable will offer the best insight into lawmakers’ thinking.

Led by Dan Scripps, a former state representative now directing the Michigan Energy Innovation Business Council, the panel includes several pro-clean energy lawmakers—Senators Hoon-Yung Hopgood and John Proos. Several other lawmakers, who have worked directly on clean energy legislation, are also invited.

Pushing Back Against the Pushback

Although Flowers won’t talk politics, he’s happy to discuss the pushback against wind power development that can develop in some communities that contemplate such projects.

He said that, in particular, AWEA is now paying closer attention to wind opponents who allege health and property value problems.

“I think the wind industry over time has realized it has to do a better job in engaging communities and addressing their concerns,” he said. “But it must also point out where there is misinformation—things like fears of infrasound and flicker. Those concerns have been addressed by science, and, when things are done correctly, they are not a problem. But they get brought up over and over again.”

Flowers observes a clear pattern in many attempts to stop wind.

“Opponents have figured out that a good way to get communities concerned about wind farms is by claiming there’s a health effect,” he observed. “There has been lots of analysis of that, from many quarters, and the jury is in: There are not health effects. But it doesn’t stop some people from misrepresenting the truth.”

Flowers also points to the evidence that wind power development has little, if any, effect on property values.

“I remember, 10 years ago, in Ludington, Mich., there was a proposal for a wind farm, and there were fears about its effect on local property values,” he recalled. “We said there would be no significant impact, but we had no data, only our own experience.

“But now there’s data from all around the nation and the world,” he said. “With 70,000 megawatts of wind power installed in the U.S., we have a lot of data. Researchers looked at housing transactions, using sophisticated measures to exclude factors that muddle the findings—changing economies, demographics, industrial versus rural areas. The same answer always comes out: There is no significant effect on property values. But it’s hard to tell people who haven’t experienced it themselves.”

Flowers said that people who have either closely studied or actually experienced wind development’s effects will fill two panels on the subject, looking at the question from different angles.

Rich VanderVeen, known as Michigan’s godfather of wind—he developed the two Mackinac turbines and brokered several sizeable developments in Gratiot County with little community resistance—will lead the 10:45 a.m. Public Acceptance panel.

Joining him will be Gratiot County’s economic developer, a Flowers NREL colleague who studies renewables’ economic impact; a top Benzie County businessman who witnessed the failure of a wind farm proposal in his area; and an executive from Consumers Energy, which faced legal challenges while developing wind power in western Michigan.

The second panel also offers a first-hand report about wind development in Huron County. John Sarver, formerly with the Michigan Energy Office and a board member at the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association, leads the Huron County Case Study panel. It includes a county commissioner and a local economic development official, and a wind developer, a turbine parts manufacturer, and a DTE Energy official directly involved in that county’s extensive wind development.

Looking Forward

Flowers watched American wind power grow from 2,500 megawatts when he first got involved, to the more than 70,000 megawatts now powering the country today. Despite some legislative reluctance and community pushback, he’s optimistic about wind’s future, and hopes to communicate that message.

When you look at the benefits it offers America, I’m very bullish,” he said. “We can get to 20 percent wind power in this country by 2030, which means big air-quality benefits; enormous water savings, since fossil fuels use so much water; dramatic domestic and in-state rural and supply chain economic benefits; and huge climate change implications.

“Siemens, a global company that makes a lot of turbines, says the single most-asked question their recruiters hear from students looking for jobs is, by far, ‘Do you have jobs in renewable energy?

“So the young people get it, and that is very encouraging. And polls consistently say that 70 to 80 percent of Americans want more renewables. Eventually the people and their best interests will prevail.”

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy specialist. Reach him at [email protected].

About the Author

Jim Dulzo is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s senior energy policy adviser. Reach him at [email protected].

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