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Officials look to zoning; Ordinances don't address wind power

Wind power developers are already sniffing around government offices in northern Michigan, looking to tap the vast amount of energy that streams above our heads.

“There were developers in Manistee and they were measuring tower heights,” said Allan O’Shea, chairman of the Manistee County Board of Commissioners. “We’re just asking them to be part of our learning process.”

O’Shea, along with officials and planners from jurisdictions throughout northern Michigan, took part in a local seminar last week about how local governments can draft zoning ordinances tailored for small and large wind projects. The presentation was organized by the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments.

Michael Klepinger, extension specialist with Michigan State University, said most jurisdictions in Michigan lack zoning ordinances that specifically address wind power.

“These folks would go to their township offices and say, ‘What kind of permit do I need?’ and get this kind of blank, ‘Gee, I don’t know’,” Klepinger said.

Townships and other governments in Manistee County are using a state grant and help from the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association to develop a zoning ordinance that could allow windmills in areas of the county deemed best for wind and least obtrusive to residents, O’Shea said.

O’Shea said that kind of planning and a public awareness campaign is crucial to avoid widespread opposition to commercial wind systems.

Last year, a proposal from Noble Environmental Power to build a cluster of wind turbines that would stand nearly 400 feet tall in Leelanau County north of Cedar was put on hold while township officials worked to draft zoning that would address wind power.

“Some find the windmills appealing symbols of our energy independence and others find them appalling,” Klepinger said.

Townships can draft zoning requirements that promote wind energy or discourage it. For example, a jurisdiction could scare off commercial wind power developers by requiring setbacks so large a windmill development would be impossible to site.

“The developers are going to see that and they’re going to make a judgment about your community based on the setback requirements,” Klepinger said.

Bill Queen, director of the Michigan Energy Demonstration Center at Northwestern Michigan College, said governments should also include small-scale individual wind power projects in zoning.

Queen said his center paid $65,000 for a small wind turbine that stands 60 feet tall and can generate up to 10 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power about half of a typical home or almost all of the needs of an energy efficient home.

Queen said he expects turbine prices will come down as demand increases and technology improves.

The biggest battleground over wind power in Michigan, however, is likely to come way out in the water.

According to wind mapping data from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the areas of the state that offer the strongest winds are in Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

“A lot of our capacity is offshore; there’s a lot of interest in ruining our views with these big old windmills out on the water,” Klepinger said. “A lot of people say that. Others think they’re gorgeous.”

The state oversees regulation of windmills in Michigan’s Great Lakes waters, Klepinger said.

“We will have some tough decisions to make,” he said.

By Patrick Sullivan

Traverse City Record-Eagle

27 May 2007

record-eagle.com