PIGEON – Three windmills erected at a Thumb elementary school have been shut down, and supporters says it’s because DTE Energy doesn’t want to see wind power succeed here.
A DTE spokesman says the utility supports renewable energy, but there were ”safety and reliability” concerns about allowing the school windmills to continue supplying power to the electrical grid.
It’s the second time this year that people in the Thumb have blamed DTE for delays to wind power projects.
Noble Environmental Power had planned to build 32 windmills near Ubly in the summer, but the work was scaled back to seven windmills due to transmission troubles with DTE, a Noble official said. The project was eventually postponed until next year.
Dick Pauly is principal at Laker Elementary School near Pigeon, where the three windmills were shut down last week after DTE voiced concerns about the grid.
Pauly said he thinks the utility is putting up roadblocks because it doesn’t want to see someone else generating electricity in the Thumb.
The windmills had been operating for about a month. DTE gets most of its power from burning coal.
”DTE, it’s the only game in town and they’re concerned about the money,” Pauly said. ”I hate to say that and I don’t generally talk like that, but in this case, I think that’s exactly what it is.”
Pauly said teachers, students and the community rallied around the project and are upset that the windmills aren’t turning anymore.
The 65-kilowatt turbines were used to educate kids about alternative energy and were supplying power to the elementary school building.
Len Singer, a DTE spokesman, said the utility will need about six weeks to complete a study of possible upgrades to the area grid that the school would need to pay for to allow the windmills to spin again.
”The real concern we have is safety and reliability,” Singer said.
”If the power from the windmills somehow back feeds into our system, it could jeopardize our employees who are working on the lines” as well as service for other customers, Singer said.
Pauly said DTE had ample time to raise concerns. The project was funded by a $265,000 Michigan Public Service Commission grant.
Judy Palnau, a Public Service Commission spokeswoman, said her agency is aware of the Laker shutdown, and commission and DTE officials met about the issue on Friday. ”We are hopeful there will be a resolution,” Palnau said.
Brion Dickens, whose wife applied for and received the windmill grant, said the three school turbines operated in California for 20 years, and were rebuilt before coming to the Thumb.
”What they’re requiring us to do is an excuse to shut us down,” said Dickens, whose company, Woodland Wind, installed the turbines.
”The grid up here that they own is so antiquated and has so many problems, we feel it’s a possibility they’re trying to get us to pay for their fixes, which need to be done anyway.”
The school windmills are designed to shut off if the power grid goes down, Dickens said, but DTE engineers are only interested in more studies. Dickens said he filed an interconnection agreement with DTE for the school windmills in June, but didn’t hear from the utility until three months later, when DTE officials told him they’d lost engineering studies, blueprints and other paperwork.
Dickens said the paperwork was resubmitted and utility officials finally met with him last week at the school, where he was told of the need for possible upgrades to the grid, costing $50,000 to $100,000.
After the meeting, Dickens shut down the windmills.
”They told us if anything happened that knocked out the grid, they could blame us for that,” Dickens said.
DTE spokesman Singer said he’s not sure of the reasons for the delays, but said tying windmills into the power grid is a complicated process.
”We’ve been working with the customer and we do want to make this work for them,” he said.
Singer said that due to possible differences in equipment, DTE can’t be sure that the windmills won’t have problems just because they operated in California.
Dickens said a smaller windmill installed at a district-owned home next to the school is still running, but only after DTE insisted that three meters, instead of just one, be installed there.
Principal Pauly and Dickens said they still hope to see the three school windmills turn again, and have contacted state and federal legislators for help.
”It just seems like somebody, a Goliath, is putting a foot down, and we’re David and we’re going to give it everything we have,” Pauly said.
by Jeff Kart, Times Writer
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