The recent shutdown of three windmills at an elementary school in Michigan’s Thumb has put state regulators on the hot seat.
Putting heat on the Michigan Public Service Commission in Lansing will hopefully help get three windmills at Laker Elementary School near Pigeon turned back on, and make it easier for future wind developers to locate here, said State Sen. Jim Barcia, D-Bay City.
Barcia said he plans to send a letter, likely today, ”requesting that the PSC play a stronger leadership role” in resolving the Laker school issue without putting an undue financial hardship on the school.
Two weeks ago, the school windmills were shut down by a contractor after DTE Energy raised safety and reliability concerns about the turbines, including whether the electrical grid can handle additional generation and whether line workers could be injured by power from the turbines during an outage.
A DTE spokesman has said the company is studying the Laker issue and the school system would have to pay for any grid upgrades, at a reported cost of $50,000 to $100,000.
Earlier this year, Noble Environmental Power of Connecticut also scaled back a windmill project slated for construction in Huron County’s Bingham Township. The project went from a planned 32 turbines to seven turbines, due to transmission troubles with DTE. In August, Noble announced the project was on hold until next year.
”I think the PSC needs to be far more aggressive than they have to date,” Barcia said, ”leveraging the regulatory authority they have over DTE to be more insistent that this issue be resolved.”
He said he will look at a legislative remedy for the problems if necessary.
Judy Palnau, spokeswoman for the Public Service Commission, said agency and DTE officials are still in negotiations over resolving the Laker issue and ”there’s no news to report.”
She declined to comment on the criticisms by Barcia and others, saying that no formal complaints have been filed with the agency over Thumb windmill projects.
Barcia said DTE and the Public Service Commission need to embrace wind power.
”This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Barcia said, in terms of the future potential for wind power in the Thumb, clean energy and the jobs it would generate.
Other observers say something stinks about what happened to the elementary school, considering that the windmills were put up with money from a PSC grant, had been operating for a month without problems and have built-in safety controls.
There also have been federal laws on the books since 1978, with the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, that require states to develop clear rules for how small power projects can hook into the electrical grid, according to Mike Jacobs, a policy director for the American Wind Energy Association.
The requirements also are part of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, and the PSC belongs to a national association that has developed model rules ”for exactly the process that both Noble Power and the school ran afoul of,” Jacobs said.
He said it looks to him like Michigan’s standards aren’t clear enough, since DTE raised concerns with the Laker project a month after it began operating, and with the Noble project after parts and a huge crane had already been delivered.
”These are pretty remarkable snafus,” Jacobs said. ”People usually know before the turbines arrive whether it’s good to go or not.”
Jacobs said the process seems to work well in other states and Michigan leaders need to ask themselves why it’s not working here.
Palnau said the PSC established interconnection standards in August 2004 governing windmill projects.
She said the agency thinks the standards are clear, and don’t need to be re-examined in light of the Noble and Laker school cases.
”There’s no reason to believe the rules need to change,” she said.
Steve Smiley, owner of Bay Energy Services in Suttons Bay, oversaw the installation of the only three commercial turbines operating in Michigan, in Traverse City and Mackinaw City, and has worked in the wind energy field for 20 years.
Smiley said it looks to him that DTE, a major, coal-burning utility, is putting ”punitive costs” on wind developers who want to come to the Thumb.
To him, it appears to be an effort to discourage the development of alternative energy projects, or at least get wind developers to pay to upgrade a poorly maintained grid.
He said the amount of electrical capacity of the three, 65-kilowatt school windmills shouldn’t be enough to cause problems.
”What they’re talking about in terms of capacity is minuscule,” Smiley said. ”If their system can’t handle 200 kilowatts, they really do have issues.”
He said DTE’s claim that the windmills would put line workers at risk is ridiculous because the windmills need some electricity to operate in the first place.
Smiley said if upgrades need to be done to the grid in the Thumb, they should be spread out to all DTE customers, which would only amount to rate increases of pennies a month.
”If an electric utility doesn’t want to do something, everything’s difficult,” Smiley said. ”If they want to do something, it’s easy. It’s just an illustration that their heart isn’t in it.”
by Jeff Kart, Times Writer
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