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Glenn Puit: Benzie Puts a Finger in the WindPrint

Clean Energy | January 27, 2009 | By Glenn Puit

Wind farms could bring new jobs to economically depressed Benzie County.

As Michigan seeks to formulate a new economy that will increasingly rely on clean energy for power and jobs, Benzie County is developing a local wind-energy ordinance that some say could help lower electricity bills and create new employment in the county.

The county’s wind ordinance is scheduled to be drafted in the coming months for consideration by the Benzie County Planning Commission and Benzie County Planner Dave Neiger.

Advocates of a clean energy future for Michigan, one that increasingly relies on wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal sources, say the opportunity is a unique one for residents of this picturesque northern Michigan county. Thoughtful, responsible development of wind farms and individual wind systems in Benzie could lower power bill, keep more energy dollars in the county, and generate both construction and maintenance jobs.

“All arrows point toward wind energy as an economic driver on many levels, and if renewables are promoted and take hold, they will be the cheaper electric alternative in the future,” said Tom Karas, director of the Michigan Alternative Energies Project.

Creating a wind turbine installation ordinance for Benzie County, of course, presents significant challenges. Chief among them is designating locations for wind farms that will be acceptable and suitable to county residents.

Longtime Benzie county resident Jim MacInnes, president of Crystal Mountain Resort & Spa, said it can be done.

“I see wind projects being primarily set up in favorable resource areas on a very site-specific basis and not a wholesale development of wind turbines throughout the county,” Mr. MacInnes said in an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “Since wind energy is an excellent renewable resource, it is my hope that Benzie county residents and the planning department will welcome and support thoughtful wind development projects.”

Mr. Neiger likes the idea. He said that if the citizens of Benzie County welcome both wind energy developments and individual turbines for residences, the county could “benefit substantially through increasing land values and increased real estate as well as personal property taxes (from) leased sites.”

“In addition, the availability of green energy/renewable energy production will reduce the consumption of less environmentally acceptable, high-sulfur coal, more expensive natural gas, and so forth,” the planner said.

Mr. MacInnes envisions the rise of a localized, Benzie-based electrical generating economy that could dramatically lower individual power bills and earn income for small-scale renewable energy installers who sell back extra power their utility—a practice called net metering.

“As we eventually transition into an era of higher cost energy, it may be beneficial to consider developing some of our own local electricity supplies,” Mr. MacInnes said. “These could include solar photo-voltaic, small hydro, and wind power. Because of our location adjacent to Lake Michigan and the fact that we have some higher terrain, there are some good wind resource areas available within the county.

“Individual small wind projects,” he added, “could be developed and larger community wind power projects could also be undertaken. Community wind projects offer the benefits of economies of scale and an opportunity to invest significant dollars locally.”

But what does Benzie County need to do to get its ordinance right?

According to the Michigan Land Use Guidelines for Siting Wind Energy Systems, which was was produced by Michigan State University Extension, local governments should consider placing personal wind energy systems in one class and utility scale systems in another class.

Large projects, referred to as utility grid systems, are often placed into a special land use permit process of site review.

Smaller, individual projects present two primary concerns: setbacks and sound levels, according to the guidelines. Tower heights also need to be considered in the development of the ordinance, and some early wind projects raised concerns about bird kills. But wind energy advocates—backed by the National Audubon Society—say that bird kills have become far less of an issue due to improvements in technology and turbine placement.

“Industry advocates, biologists, and bird advocates have said that obsolete, first-generation turbines that were poorly placed have caused an excessive number of avoidable bird deaths,” MSU’s report states. “Steps have been taken to minimize avian impacts.”

All of these issues will need to be sorted out on the local level by Benzie’s planning commission and, most importantly, Benzie residents themselves.

Karen Roberts, a member of the planning commission, said she is committed to getting it right on wind power. She said the county would amend existing ordinance to include language for wind energy systems.

The Benzie County Zoning Ordinance Rewrite Committee, commonly known as (ZORC), will writing the initial language. Once the committee has prepared a proposed ordinance, it will go to the planning commission for consideration, review, and public hearing.

“What I am hoping to see is clear language that is friendly to wind energy system siting in Benzie,” Ms. Roberts said. “To me, this means designating as much as possible as a use by right. I am impressed by the views of Michigan State University Extension’s wind experts as well as those of other experts that suggest that much of the language for wind energy systems is based on out-of-date information and, as a result, imposes unnecessary burdens on those who want to site wind energy.

“We are certainly looking at existing ordinances,” she added, “but are trying to be mindful that just because lots of ordinances contain certain types of language, that doesn’t mean that language is sensible.

“I am hoping we can come up with some creative ways to optimize our wind use while protecting our resources,” she said.