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Benzie Makes Room for WindPrint

Clean Energy | January 13, 2010 | By Shauna Fite

A new Benzie County zoning ordinance sets different rules for different size wind turbines. Photo Cheyenne Wind Energy.com

Benzie County, where I’ve lived for much of my life, packs a lot of punch into a little space. We’re Michigan’s smallest county in terms of size, but our sweeping shorelines, majestic bluffs, and crystal clear waters are matchless.

The State of Michigan likes Benzie, too, albeit for different nature-based reason: The county is one of the best places in the state for developing wind power.

That is why many people here take it as good news that, amidst all of the turmoil about the future of county zoning, the county planning commission completed a major project that will allow residents to reap wind’s big economic benefits while protecting our residents and natural resources.

In fact, while putting together the new ordinance, the Benzie County Planning Commission made good use of residents’ suggestions.

The commission members got to work on the wind ordinance last January, and the Benzie County Board of Commissioners adopted it into the county zoning ordinance in October.

The ordinance deals with three kinds of wind development-residential, community-owned, and utility-owned-and has different requirements for each.

For example, a resident who wants to put his own, small-scale turbine on a tower no higher than 95 feet needs no permit. But a company that wants to erect a utility-scale machine that delivers power directly to the grid definitely needs lots of permits.

The planning commission’s work on new wind power rules roughly coincided with the state Wind Energy Resource Zone Board’s discovery of Benzie’s good wind. Last year, even as a move was afoot among local officials to get to work on wind, the state board identified the four Michigan regions with the highest capacity for harnessing commercial-scale wind power.

Mary Templeton, a former member of the wind board and now a wind industry consultant, helped assemble Michigan’s report.

“The purpose of the report was to identify the highest potential for wind energy in Michigan,” she said. “The Wind Zones may receive expedited transmission siting for developers installing utility-scale wind projects. This creates economic opportunity, as developers tend to migrate to communities that accommodate their needs.”

“Benzie County’s updated wind ordinance clearly outlines the various types of wind development,” Ms. Templeton added, “and does a good job of promoting that development.”

Benzie is in what the state calls Wind Region 3, which also includes parts of Leelanau and Manistee Counties. Region 1 includes Allegan County; Region 2 includes Antrim and Charlevoix Counties; and Region 4 includes Huron, Sanilac, Tuscola, Bay and Saginaw Counties.

The report said Benzie County could accommodate at least 435 turbines producing 652 MW of instantaneous energy on a windy day—the output of a large-sized coal-fired power plant—or as many as 778 turbines producing 1,167 MW—as much as the very largest coal plants. If the wind blows just 20 percent of the time, the county would produce between 1.1 million and 2 million MWh of energy a year. At 12 cents a kWh, today’s going rate for wind power, that would add up to between $132 million and $240 million worth of electricity per year.

The state’s report does get mixed reviews from some Benzie residents, however.

Some worry that identifying Benzie as a wind “hot spot” will bring droves of developers to the small county to set up utility-scale turbines that threaten the county’s natural resources and pristine beauty. Others, however, are excited about the potential for wind power to attract new business and investment to a county badly in need of both.

The county planning commission researched wind power regulations from other states to determine how best to protect Benzie, its scenery and natural resources, and its residents. In a series of public meetings, the commission listened closely to residents’ concerns and made some changes based on their comments.

The planning commission said it wanted the updated ordinance to serve as a development tool that attracts new residents, particularly those who like the idea of renewable energy taking off in our state. Benzie’s new ordinance, according to its supporters, could do a lot to make that happen.

Karen Roberts, a member of the Benzie County Planning Commission, was the lead author of the updated ordinance.

“Before we even began to write the ordinance, it was clear that there was a lot of excitement among the individual citizens and businesses in Benzie County about putting in wind energy systems,” Ms. Roberts said. “We wanted to write an ordinance that would be welcoming to the use of sustainable energy. We saw that by creating an encouraging environment for wind, it would be one more way that the county would support indigenous businesses and attract new ones.”

And it looks like that idea is working. There are now a number of developers scouting the county for good sites, and there are at least two community-owned wind projects being discussed.

The collaborative approach that the planning commission used to write the new wind rules exemplifies what good governance can do. As Michigan transitions to a green economy, other counties could follow Benzie’s example—crafting local wind ordinances that protect people and places while attracting quality growth and development.

Shauna Fite is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s program coordinator and a policy specialist for Benzie County. Reach her at shauna@mlui.org. This article first appeared in DomeMagazine.com.