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Winds howling, but Thumb windmills still can't catch a breeze  

DTE Energy unveiled two ”solutions” Friday for turning windmills back on at Laker Elementary School, but neither option will work, school officials say.

Laker leaders say DTE officials don’t seem to understand how windmills work and the coal-burning utility continues to drag its feet on the project. A DTE engineer is supposed to be back at the school on Monday to study the turbines.

”I’m very frustrated,” Interim District Superintendent Bob Drury said after a heated, two-hour meeting with DTE officials on Friday.

Drury had visions of taking students and staff members outside, where the wind was howling, after Friday’s meeting and turning the school’s three windmills back on.

But the blades remain locked in place for now, and are not generating power to offset school electricity costs and teach kids about alternative energy.

”If they don’t spin, they will sit there as a monument” to a utility that doesn’t support green power, said Brion Dickens, a wind developer who installed the turbines.

Drury said he thinks DTE eventually will come up with a solution that works.

”I think PR-wise, it’s too important a project for DTE to have festering,” he said.

Meanwhile, two wind developers plan to bypass DTE and its distribution lines and begin construction by next year on a total of more than 60 turbines in nearby Bingham Township, near Ubly, and Oliver and Chandler townships, near Elkton.

Noble Environmental Power of Connecticut and RMT Inc. of Grand Rapids plan to connect their turbines to transmission lines run by the Midwest Independent Transmission System Operator rather than dealing with DTE, Noble and township officials said.

Noble postponed construction of its project earlier this year after interconnection troubles with DTE.

On Friday, DTE representatives outlined two options to Laker leaders at a closed-door meeting at the school, officials said.

Under one option, the school would disconnect three 65-kilowatt windmills there from DTE’s electrical grid, and the turbines would only operate when power is needed at the elementary school and a junior-senior high school building next door.

But Dickens said turning the turbines on and off every day would ruin them in about a week.

Under the second option, the school would pay $180,000 to upgrade its equipment and DTE equipment to be able to operate the turbines on the utility’s electrical grid, and then be paid back for a percentage of the excess power the turbines generate.

Under either option, DTE would kick in an additional $150,000 to defray costs.

Marvin Williams, DTE marketing supervisor, declined to answer some questions after the meeting, such as whether the turbines pose a safety hazard.

DTE officials told Dickens on Sept. 20 that the windmills had to be shut down on Sept. 20 due to ”safety and reliability” concerns. They had operated in California for years and had been operating for a month at the school without problems.

Williams said the project is stalled because developer Dickens didn’t conduct a feasibility study before the turbines were installed.

”We support Laker schools and renewable energy programs,” he said.

Dickens said the utility was supposed to conduct the study, and DTE is four months behind in doing that.

Drury said the school system doesn’t have $180,000 to spend on upgrading DTE’s infrastructure; he thinks proposed upgrades to the turbines aren’t even needed.

Besides, Drury said, the project was paid for with a $265,000 grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission and supported by DTE when it was first proposed two years ago.

”It should have been settled a long time ago,” Drury said, calling the situation ”ridiculous.”

State Sen. Jim Barcia, D-Bay City, sent an aide to Friday’s meeting.

Barcia has asked the Public Service Commission to take a more active role in getting the Laker windmills turned back on. Three officials from the PSC attended Friday’s meeting, but they all left before speaking to the media.

Drury said school leaders asked DTE representatives on Friday to appeal to high-level utility officials and pay for all upgrade costs.

Dickens said the school has lost more than $3,000 worth of free power since the blades were idled last month.

– Jeff Kart covers the environment and politics for The Times. He can be reached at 894-9639 or by e-mail at jkart@bc-times.com.


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