A steady Lake Michigan wind blows through Christmas trees and asparagus on Gerald Greiner’s farm.
He might as well spit into it. The fourth-generation farmer is among three dozen in western Oceana County who had hoped to start harvesting the wind soon, turning it into a cash crop.
They signed leases with a Lowell developer for what would have been Michigan’s first energy-creating wind farm, with 90 huge, white turbines – part of a national campaign to fight global warming.
“We’d see one just over the top of that hill,” said Greiner, 81, pointing out the back window of his ranch home.
But some neighbors didn’t like the idea, and neither did the local planning commission, which questioned the benefits of wind power and the impact on property values.
It’s not clear what will happen to the project.
“I don’t think they should be in anybody’s backyard,” said Elaine Oomen, who lives across the road from Greiner’s farm.
The story is the same across Michigan – planned wind farms caught in the doldrums, some blocked by neighbors.
Corn, soybeans, wind
About 300 miles away in central Illinois, white blades of five massive turbines churn 214 feet above the Rhoads farm.
They are part of a 63-turbine wind farm spread over 2,200 acres south of Rockford, Ill. Over almost every rise, turbines face the wind like daisies straining for the sun.
The lifelong farmers make more money from one turbine than from three acres of corn.
“I raise corn. I raise soybeans, and I also harvest wind,” Elmer Rhoads, 69, said. “I wish I could harvest more wind.”
Michigan ranks last among Great Lakes states when it comes to turning wind potential into electricity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Illinois has 96 wind turbines, with about 640 more proposed or under construction. More than 700 turbines turn in Minnesota.
Michigan has three commercial windmills – two near the Mackinac Bridge and one just outside Traverse City.
“It’s a shame, it’s a crying shame, when we have the ability and have the capacity but we don’t have public policy strongly supporting it,” said Julie Harker-Leigh of Noble Environmental Power, a Connecticut-based company trying to build a wind farm in Michigan’s Thumb.
In Michigan, the fight over wind is blowing through Lansing and has led to a debate over local control. A bill is pending to take away that control and set up statewide standards to make it easier to build wind farms.
Township officials argue that they, not the state, know what’s best for their residents.
Richard VanderVeen, president of Lowell-based Mackinaw Power, blames a patchwork of local zoning laws for part of the delay in his 90-turbine project in Oceana County. His company operates the pair of turbines in Mackinaw City.
He says the state Legislature could help by passing a law requiring utility companies to use more renewable energy.
A renewable energy law would make lenders feel more confident about financing wind turbines – which cost more than $1 million each to install, VanderVeen said.
“Our governor and Legislature, Republicans and Democrats, need to step it up,” he said. “It’s time to get moving.”
Sen. Patricia Birkholz, R-Saugatuck, has proposed a law requiring power providers to get 10 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2016. It’s called a renewable portfolio standard.
“Most entrepreneurs won’t locate in a state unless they have a renewable portfolio standard,” Birkholz said. “They’re not sure what the market will be. They want some guarantees.”
Wind, she said, “is an important piece, but it’s just one part of the puzzle. There are lots of other forms of alternative energy, and we need to look at all of them.”
Gov. Jennifer Granholm has said she wants the state to get 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2015.
Environmentalists want 20 percent by 2020. Minnesota recently set a goal of 25 percent by 2025.
Consumers Energy officials say they get 5 percent from renewable sources – though little of it is from the wind – and have set a goal of 10 percent. They prefer voluntary standards over state mandates.
Winds of change
Wind turbines are sprouting across the country.
The biggest potential is through the Great Plains – North Dakota, Texas, Kansas, Montana – dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of wind.”
Michigan is the 14th windiest state in the continental U.S. and is second to Minnesota in wind potential among the Great Lakes states.
It has greater wind potential than Illinois, Wisconsin, even California.
But it is near the bottom nationally in creating wind energy – ranking below Ohio, where winds often are calm.
In northern Michigan, neighbors have blocked proposed wind farms in Leleenau and Charlevoix counties.
In Huron County, in the Thumb, Noble Environmental Power broke ground on a wind farm in December 2005, but delays in getting township approval and hooking up to the power grid have put off construction until 2008.
“It’s been very slow, very deliberate,” Harker-Leigh, Noble’s spokeswoman, said.
In Elkton, also in the Thumb, the John Deere tractor company is financing a 32-turbine farm, which could be the state’s first, said Huron County Zoning and Building Director Russ Lundberg.
Last week, Wolverine Power Cooperative, a small electric company based in Cadillac, announced it would buy power from John Deere’s Harvest Wind Farm. It is expected to create enough electricity to power 15,000 homes.
A ridge, a divide
In West Michigan’s Oceana County, just inland from Lake Michigan, the wind hasn’t been at Richard VanderVeen’s back.
VanderVeen, the son of the late U.S. Rep. Richard VanderVeen, owns Mackinaw Power with Fred Keller, the owner of Cascade Engineering Inc., a suburban Grand Rapids auto supplier.
The company wants to build a wind farm on a ridge through the middle of Oceana County, near Hart. The 90 turbines would stand 360 feet to the tip of the blade – 15 feet higher than Plaza Towers, the tallest building in Grand Rapids.
VanderVeen said he is studying other potential sites, including Ottawa County, though he wouldn’t provide details.
The Oceana County plan divided the farming community.
VanderVeen signed leases with three dozen farmers covering 8,000 acres (though not all would get turbines), worked with planners in several townships, set up large towers to test the wind and conducted a study on hooking up to the electrical grid.
He also signed a contract to provide wind power to Consumers, though it doesn’t require the electricity come from Oceana County, he said.
The farm would generate enough emissions-free electricity to power 35,000 homes and save 105,000 tons of coal a year, VanderVeen said. It also would pump $50 million into Oceana County through leases, property taxes and local jobs, he said.
Farmers would get 3 percent of gross proceeds from the electricity, $5,000 to $10,000 a year for each turbine, VanderVeen said.
Greiner, a fourth-generation farmer with 1,500 acres, expected up to four windmills on his land, with a windfall of $20,000 a year.
“It might help keep land in agriculture by helping to pay the agricultural bills,” Greiner said. “It would help. These are the poorest years on the farm over the last 50 years.”
Eugene Kokx Jr., 46, who farms 1,000 acres to the east in Oceana County’s Crystal Township, signed a lease for up to three wind turbines but hasn’t heard from VanderVeen in months, he said.
Kokx and his wife, Teresa, and friends rode Harley-Davidson motorcycles to Dorr County in Wisconsin to see wind turbines there.
“I want to be part of something that we need in this country: renewable energy,” he said. “Why not step up and do your share? I want to be part of something new.
“I’d rather see that than a nuclear plant up the road.”
But, for the wind farm to work, VanderVeen said he needed concessions.
He urged townships to reduce the distance between windmills and homes to 600 feet, allowing him to squeeze in more turbines – nearly two-dozen in Weare Township alone. Weare Township’s ordinance required 1,500 feet from the turbine to the nearest property line.
While other Oceana County townships agreed, Weare Township balked.
At one meeting, a neighbor yelled at VanderVeen and shook a finger in his face.
“We felt Weare would be giving up too much of a quality of life,” planning commission member Joe Daly said.
“Nimbyism” (Not-in-my-backyard) played a role, but it was more complicated than that, said Weare Township asparagus farmer Bob Green, whose wife, Lori, is on the planning commission.
Neighbors complained the turbines would change the complexion of the farming community and block their views. While big farmers would benefit through leases, neighbors without a lot of land would suffer lower property values, they feared.
Some argued turbines are too noisy.
They also cite studies questioning the benefits of wind power, saying it’s not dependable and can work only with subsidies from utility companies and the government.
“My objection is they’re inefficient,” Green said. “If they were efficient, I’m sure Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison would have moved to stick these things up on their own.”
Consumers Energy President and Chief Operating Officer John Russell said the utility, which serves 1.8 million Michigan customers, supports wind energy but acknowledges its limits.
The wind doesn’t always blow, leaving turbines idle more often than not.
“Think of August days, when it’s hot and there’s no wind,” Russell said.
Wind turbines produce energy about 30 percent of the time, compared to 90 percent at a coal-fired plant.
It would take nearly 2,000 wind turbines to produce the energy created by Consumers’ Campbell Unit 3 coal plant in Ottawa County, utility officials said.
And wind-generated electricity costs Consumers more than coal-fired power, mostly because wind power is so inefficient, Russell said.
Consumers and some customers are subsidizing renewable energy, including wind power, through the utility’s Green Generation program. Customers pay at least $2.50 a month more on their electric bill, which goes into the green fund. Consumers has contributed $10 million to the fund.
“Wind is attractive to people, until it goes into your backyard,” Russell said.
The debate over wind turbines led state Rep. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, to propose legislation for statewide standards to override local zoning laws.
“It makes it real hard to do business in a state where you have a patchwork of regulations,” Walker said.
The state House rejected the bill last year, but Walker since re-introduced it with some changes.
The basics of the bill: A turbine could be built as long as it’s far enough from property lines – no closer than 1.5 times the height of a turbine’s blade tip – and it’s no noisier than 55 decibels at the property line. That is slightly quieter than the sound of a normal conversation.
The Michigan Township Association is fighting the bill, Walker said.
“It’s just another move by state government to diminish local control, to take away from the communities their ability to govern themselves,” said Weare Township Planning Commission member Joe Daly, who voted against turbines in his part of Oceana County. “It kind of alarms me.”
By Ken Kolker
The Grand Rapids Press
10 June 2007
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