TRACI L. WEISENBACH and KATE FINNEREN , The Huron Daily Tribune
PIGEON – Just as the three wind turbines by Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker Elementary School only recently started spinning after a long wait, those involved with the turbine project are facing difficulties with DTE Energy – and it’s making their heads spin.
“DTE personnel have demanded that these turbines be shut down immediately and not restarted until (a) seven-week study is completed, the school district pays for the upgrading of DTE equipment, and that equipment is installed by DTE personnel,” said Laker Interim Superintendent Bob Drury in a press release.
Les Singer, DTE Energy spokesman, said there are requirements for any customer that interconnects with the company’s system to ensure that their equipment can safely and compatibly work with the system.
“Our concerns are that the power that is generated by the wind turbines doesn’t backfeed into our system and create a safety concern or in any way jeopardize the reliability of the electrical system for the other customers,” he said. “And there are technical requirements that can prevent those problems from occurring.”
Brion Dickens of Woodland Wind LLC in Pigeon, said he and his wife, Kathy Dickens, Laker schools counselor and writer of the $265,000 grant that allowed the district to get the turbines, along with Drury and a representative from B’s Electric who assisted with the project, met with several DTE representatives Wednesday.
Brion Dickens said DTE indicated at Wednesday’s meeting that if the district was going to put wind turbine power on DTE’s electrical grid, it would need to upgrade the electrical system between the turbines and the substation by the Cooperative Elevator. DTE representatives said the company requires these upgrades for safety.
“DTE is saying that their switches, breakers and other equipment are not capable of handling our excess electricity,” Drury said in the statement. “They also say that they will need at least seven weeks to complete an engineering study to determine what the costs will be to (Lakers) to upgrade DTE switches, breakers and other equipment.”
Drury said DTE representatives mentioned figures such as $50,000-$60,000 at Wednesday’s meeting.
Brion Dickens said this extra equipment DTE is requiring would prevent something called islanding. This occurs when a portion of the power distribution system becomes electrically isolated from the remainder of the power system, which may happen during a lightning storm or any time a part of the grid is shut down.
Islanding happens when the isolated area continues to be energized by a source of energy connected to the isolated subsystem, which could be a wind turbine or another energy source. These islands pose a significant risk to safety, power quality and equipment and need to be quickly eliminated, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Brion Dickens said there is no need for this extra equipment between the turbines and the substation to prevent islanding because of the technology the turbines have. If a portion of the electrical grid (to which the turbines are connected) shuts down, he said the turbines stop functioning. They wouldn’t emit energy onto the shut-down grid; therefore islanding wouldn’t happen.
“The turbines are 100 percent safe and reliable,” he said. “They’ve already been running for 20 years (on a wind farm in California). California has the most strict electric code in the nation, so why isn’t that good enough for DTE?” He said the turbines meet DTE’s safety requirements and he has the (paperwork and blueprints) to prove it.
“Our safety factors are even better than theirs – they don’t want to look at (the proof), though,” Brion Dickens said. “The equipment they’re telling us to buy is an extra requirement.”
Singer said that’s not the case. He also said DTE is committed to working with Lakers to resolve any issues surrounding the turbines project, and getting the system operational for them.
Brion Dickens insisted DTE’s pulling another rabbit out of their hat, the company doesn’t – and doesn’t want to –understand how wind turbines work, and is forcing Lakers to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to upgrade DTE’s problems.
“DTE is a multi-billion dollar company, and it’s the ninth largest utility company in the nation, but they’re not willing to help out a struggling public school in Michigan,” he said, adding the items DTE is requiring the school to have, the company already has on storeroom shelves. “They wouldn’t have to buy it, and they have the personnel (to install it).”
Brion Dickens said he could physically demonstrate to DTE that the turbines will stop if part of the grid shuts down, proving they meet the anti-islanding criteria, but he said DTE doesn’t want to see it.
Singer maintains the company supports Lakers’ project.
“We are supportive of this – we’re committed to helping work with the customer to get this system operational,” he said. “But we do have to ensure that the system can operate safely and compatibly with our electric grid.”
Brion Dickens said he has concerns of his own regarding the safety of this extra equipment DTE is now requiring and how it would affect the turbine operation.
Although DTE had sent Kathy Dickens a letter in support of the wind turbine project that said the company would do whatever it could to help, Brion Dickens said there have been other problems he and the school have encountered with DTE. “Four months ago, we filed an interconnection agreement with DTE (as required by the Michigan Public Service Commission),” he said. “They called three months ago and said while they remember seeing it, they couldn’t find the application and they wanted us to send in another one. We said no.”
He said this was because the district had paid $4,000 for an engineering study and blueprints that were sent along with the 50-page application to DTE. This was paid for by the $265,000 MPSC grant. It wasn’t possible to duplicate the engineering documents without paying more money, so DTE agreed to cover the costs of sending in the application and paperwork, he said.
Brion Dickens said the MPSC requires DTE to notify the applicant in writing within a week, saying the company received the application. He said DTE did not meet this requirement with the elementary school turbines nor the turbine at the superintendent’s house (also paid for by the grant) and turbines at the Dickens’ private residence.
“The only thing we got was a call a month later (from DTE), asking questions,” he said.
He said other problems he’s had with DTE concern net metering for the turbine at the superintendent’s house and turbines at his home. The Dickens had to fight for several months to get everything approved with DTE and get the net metering, which allows the meter to move backwards to allow for an automatic credit to the consumer and the utility company when more power is produced than needed.
Brion Dickens said DTE indicated company policy stated meters could not run backwards for credit.
He said it took a number of months to get the meters which the company installed Wednesday.
“We’ve given them several hundred dollars of power over the past few months,” he said.
Brion Dickens said he hasn’t gotten to the point of net metering with DTE for the three elementary turbines – they need to get through the current hurdle first.
“They’re not helping,” he said. “They’re setting up road blocks (and) stifling alternative energy. They’re hurting economic growth in the area.”
Singer said this is not the case and the company fully supports the project’s concept of using renewable energy and interconnecting that energy into the company’s system.
“But we absolutely have to ensure the safety of our customers and our workers, and the safety and reliably for the electrical system … that the interconnection that they’re proposing is not going to in any way jeopardize the safety or reliability of the system for other customers,” he said.
Brion Dickens said he’s not sure what would happen if the Laker Elementary turbines kept spinning, but thinks it could lead to a criminal penalty or fine. So what’s the school district going to do now?
“Elkton-Pigeon-Bay Port Laker Schools will not accept DTE’s solution and will be seeking public pressure, legislative input and pressure from the Michigan Public Service Commission to persuade DTE to get into the 21st century and make the necessary upgrades so that our school district can be a contributor of electricity to its neighbors,” Drury said in the statement.
Brion Dickens said Rep. Tom Meyer, R-Bad Axe; Sen. Jim Barcia, D-Bay City; U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee have been contacted, and state representative candidate Terry Brown is helping as well.
“They all say this is ridiculous and it shouldn’t be happening,” he said. “The MPSC is looking into it and they’re talking to DTE directly. The MPSC is quite upset. They paid for a project that’s now idle.”
The Dickens were having a staff meeting this morning to talk about the project and why the turbines are shut down.
Brion Dickens said he’s been receiving phone calls asking why the turbines aren’t spinning.
“The community has really supported this project, and (people) are livid,” he said. “They’re saying, “˜How dare (DTE) shut us off.'”
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