Rich Vander Veen’s Recipe for Windpower Success

August 14, 2012 | |

Part 2 of a two-part series. Read Part 1 here.

Richard Vander Veen at a TEDx talk in Marquette.

If Michigan wind power has a godfather, it must be Rich Vander Veen.

Back in 2001 his company, Mackinaw Power LLC, developed the state’s first commercial wind farm—the two turbines near the south end of the Mackinac Bridge.

Today Mr. Vander Veen has another company—Wind Resource LLC—and a fresh notch in his windpower belt: the state’s largest wind farm. Its 133 turbines, each generating up to 1.6 million watts of electricity, are now spinning across four townships and 30,000 acres of farmland in northeast Gratiot County.

That it took him more than a decade to launch this second, much larger wind project highlights his dogged determination to grow Michigan’s clean energy economy. But it also underscores the crucial role that the state’s 10 percent renewable energy mandate—which voters could expand to 25 percent by approving the “Michigan Energy Michigan Jobs” ballot initiative in November—has played in building a new state industry and boosting local economies.

Successful windpower development requires more than a good, strong breeze. It needs farmland, a nearby grid connection, investors willing to bet on a risky venture, uniform siting regulations, sites well away from vulnerable wildlife, an open approach to the community that inspires trust and a willingness to ignore anti-wind disinformation campaigns, and a statewide renewable mandate that prompts utilities to sign clean-energy contracts with windpower companies.

Before putting all of these ingredients together in Gratiot County, Mr. Vander Veen found other ways to grow wind power in the state. He served on the Michigan Wind Working Group and the Michigan Sustainable Energy Coalition, helped develop wind turbine siting guidelines, and helped shape legislation enacted in 2008 that mandated renewable energy and energy efficiency for all of the state’s electric utilities. It led to, among others, the Gratiot County Wind Farm.

The state’s windpower godfather stays busy in other ways, such as supporting EARTH University in Costa Rica, promoting sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurial projects there, and sponsoring scholarships for Native Americans.

Mr. Vander Veen’s success in Gratiot, where another wind farm is taking shape in response to Michigan’s original renewables mandate, reflects favorably on his “community-first” approach to development and on Gratiot’s regional approach to planning and economic development, which makes it a state leader.

We visited Gratiot County to see the farm and meet with Mr. Vander Veen. We then spoke with him by phone to find out more about his approach to windpower development.

Michigan Land Use Institute: Why Gratiot County? Were Gratiot County/township officials already interested in wind power when you started poking around there?

Richard Vander Veen: Yes, there had been initial inquiries about wind power before I got there, but we had another important thing going for us: The community had already gone through a process creating a consensus to preserve its farmland for future generations. They have a marvelous group, Greater Gratiot Development Inc., focused on defining “community” as something that went beyond individual municipal borders. That was a very important starting point.

They adopted a master plan for the entire county … a unique thing in Michigan. So as you look at the ways a wind farm could come about, things began to evolve. That was a real opportunity.

MLUI: What was your role in developing the Gratiot County Wind Farm?

Mr. Vander Veen: We put together all of the basic components: Leased land, first pooling [wind royalties] agreement, worked with [Gratiot County Development Director] Don Schuur on countywide zoning for wind. That was all in place before Invenergy, [which managed the construction and operates half of the new turbines] came on the scene.

Also, I had chaired the Michigan Sustainable Energy Coalition … it was short-lived, but focused on making sure we did get a statewide renewable energy mandate. We tried with several different legislators; finally Patty Birkholz took it up after seeing the Berkeley National Laboratory’s look at the economic effects of similar, existing mandates in 18 states.

So we talked about jobs, energy security, and protecting our prime farmland and Great Lakes, and how it would reset the state about who we are socially, all the things that bring people together beyond their private interests. It was the ethic of sustainability and stewardship.

The local Future Farmers of America staged debates on wind power and presented three skits—one in a coffee shop, one with two farmers talking over a tractor, and one with a congressman holding a community meeting. They asked hard questions: what about noise, flicker, setbacks, property values, are turbines really efficient? That was taking place as we finished the zoning and leasing the land in a way that spread the wealth.

The agreements went through at least 10 law firms. So then we had the new state renewable energy mandate [enacted in Oct. 2008], the countywide wind zoning ordinance, the grid, plus a state-of-the-art wind study. That’s when we went to Invenergy: they had put down a $2 billion forward order for turbines [which were hard to get.] So we had what they needed; and they had what we needed.

I’m so grateful to all the people who participated and kept the standard as high as possible. It was a wonderful team effort.

MLUI: So, in approaching the community, whom did you talk to first?

Mr. Vander Veen: First we worked with some of the largest families in the community, who put us in touch with their networks, who introduced us to other people…and so forth. So you end up respecting everybody.

We did a listening tour, finding out what are the community’s values. We knew we were invited guests, and couldn’t impose anything. That is why we chose the cooperative, community participation model. In my TEDx talk in Marquette, I contrasted our approach with a utility trying to impose, say, a Texas approach, where there are only a few landowners and they have huge farms.

If you start by deciding things on your own and then defending it to the community, it doesn’t get you very far.

MLUI: What kinds of things did you talk about to folks?

Mr. Vander Veen: We have a FAQ list on our Web site. We publish a monthly newsletter. There’s a whole range of stuff we gave to people.

At what point do you educate them enough? The answer is, never. So at the end of day you are creating various levels of education, suitable for everyone from scientists to people who haven’t graduated from high school: You have to respect them, too. We used peer-reviewed studies, interpreting them into truthful pieces of information, so that people can read it and get it.

MLUI: If an anti-windpower group had started very aggressively claiming that wind turbines are too noisy, cause health problems, and would harm property values, do you think you would have been able to turn that around?

Mr. Vander Veen: I don’t know. That’s a conjecture I did not have to face. Our approach was—we are not trying to limit anyone’s rights. If you think about what motivates “NIMBYism”—the opposite of that is ownership. That comes in several ways…people who sign an easement, people who don’t but are part of a church that did, career opportunities, finding a way for their own farm to be preserved for next generation.

Once people have it in their minds they are not part of the project, they can fall prey to misinformation. Then, to dismantle someone’s anger and turn that around is very difficult. So, it is important to identify people who do have serious questions and work with them to achieve “informed consent.” People are invited into the process, where they can discuss their concerns.

Early on, we offered a monthly trip to Mackinaw City. Come join us, talk to the mayor, Jim Camlin, whose message is, “We like wind. Is it perfect? No. Is it something that causes health problems? No. Are we proud of it? Yes.”

People objecting to the turbines had never seen them up close. You can’t miss ’em here now. Hopefully, they will see them as progress. Some see them as kinetic sculptures, or emblems of energy independence. One woman at a community meeting said, “Would you rather see more white gravestones in Arlington from oil wars, or more white wind turbines on the horizon?”

With global warming and our energy needs, we do need all hands on deck. Everybody should be part of this. If we have all that wind within the Great Lakes and we don’t use it, isn’t that a pre-condition to building more nuclear power plants?

And, until and unless fracking is proven to be safe, we are paying for our natural gas, too, but not the true cost.

Is wind perfect? Of course not, but it’s a big part of solution. If you start there with people, you can get their attention. It is important to get good information out, something that has solid science and real economics behind it.

MLUI: What is your take on the anti-wind movement? Do you think they are getting any help from the people who are funding climate denialism?

Mr. Vander Veen: We’d all be naive if we were surprised to find that they are funded by the Koch brothers and company. I don’t think there’s any question of that. The people most threatened by turbines are the ones, like the Kochs, owning fossil fuels. They’ll use anything they can to undo this.

Read Michael Klepinger’s briefing. Read the National Renewable Energy Lab’s 10 Myths about Wind Power. Read Brian Wyser’s outstanding work. Those are honest, full, grounded, major pieces of work because they are based on hundreds of people thinking, doing the science, doing the math to support their work.

Would it work in every community? Probably not. We had a great community to work with, and thank you, DTE, for the power purchase agreement. It increased our ability to get this project done.

We put out an RFP for building the farm, based on the new state renewables mandate, in the fall of 2009. We had the right developer; we had full community support. It was often great fun; just as we were putting out the RFP we had 350 people show up to support our request for a special-use permit. Townships opened their hearings up to everyone. …20 people spoke, 18 supported the permit, two had questions, and we answered their questions to their satisfaction.

MLUI: Should there be statewide standards on windpower siting?

Mr. Vander Veen: This is bound to be contentious, but it should be considered. Does Michigan really need 83 counties, 1,250 townships, 600+ municipalities and more than 500 school districts, all of which have planning and taxing powers, involved in regulating windpower development?

It was Thomas Jefferson who designed townships to be six miles by six miles, in the Northwest Ordinance, 200 years ago, because “a citizen could ride [that distance on] a horse across and back in a day…”

Yet, “local control” is a maxim. Is it sound? Should we have regional planning? Master plans? Should “community” be defined beyond—and supersede—boundaries?

A thoughtful approach that articulates the need for protecting our Great Lakes for future generations is critical for setting the stage for this statewide wind energy standard. Should we wait for a crisis to do that?

MLUI: Is the ordinance that Gratiot and its townships came up with a good model for the state? Was it a difficult or contentious process?

Mr. Vander Veen: Yes, and yes. But the time was well invested, by engaging the public early and often. Investing in public education, a listening tour: We were fortunate to have leaders there.

MLUI: You were about 10 years between wind developments.

Mr. Vander Veen: Success comes only to those entrepreneurs who know failure. As an investor said last week on NPR, “We don’t invest in the starry-eyed; we invest in those who have the battle scars to show they understand the problems and are dedicating their lives to solving the problems.”

Thomas Alva Edison claimed he never had a “failure”–simply a long string of tries and try-agains. So we are learning lessons and inculcating those into a pattern that encourages informed consent.

MLUI: I must say that when I visited St. Louis/Breckenridge, I was startled at just how many turbines I saw from the main highway. Have you heard any buyers’ regret from anyone?

Mr. Vander Veen: No, I have not. Not yet.

Senior Editor Jim Dulzo writes about clean energy issues for the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach him at [email protected].


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