Alternative energy is important to Michigan’s future in the development and use of new technologies. But getting there requires thoughtful and careful analysis of the costs and benefits – especially when tax dollars are involved.
The case hasn’t been made so far on any of those fronts, and two Downriver communities that are studying whether to build windmills in their cities need to look at that carefully.
Wyandotte has already spent roughly $1 million. Taylor recently approved a $100,000 study of wind currents. They need to be careful because local communities shouldn’t be in the utility business.
Wyandotte already operates its own utilities, including power, water and cable, and offers those services at or near competitive rates, says Melanie McCoy, general manager of Wyandotte Municipal Services. She says adding wind power wouldn’t burden the system, though she acknowledges that fuel costs are putting a strain on the power side of the operation. Wyandotte won’t have as much of a cushion to adjust as corporate utilities.
To get another view of the danger of city-owned utilities, one need look no further than the disaster that is the Detroit Public Lighting Department. Street lights in Detroit that burn out stay dark for years, despite resident complaints. Service in homes is unreliable.
And that’s with a traditional utility, not one as volatile as wind energy.
Taylor officials say building two 1.5-megawatt turbines would cost $3 million and could power up to 600 homes, but the city would most likely use the energy for municipal buildings. The city would sell excess power to utility companies or use it to lower residents’ bills, Taylor Mayor Cameron Priebe says.
The city is using $60,000 to build two 120-foot-tall meteorological towers to gather wind current information for a year. That money is coming from the city’s compost facility, which operates at a profit, Priebe says. Once the data is in, he says $40,000 will be used from the general fund to pay experts to evaluate the information. If approved, Priebe says the city will apply for zero percent federal loans and grants to cover construction costs.
Even so, the city shouldn’t rush into construction. Public input is needed, as are approvals from the Federal Aviation Administration because Taylor is near Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
Additionally, the city needs to consider using the data – if it says turbines are viable – to attract private developers to take over the project. That limits residents’ liability for short- and long-term costs but returns the same proposed benefits. If private companies aren’t interested in the projects, there is likely good reason.
That doesn’t mean that alternative energy isn’t part of the solution. It is. But local communities should be wary of assuming too much risk on behalf of their taxpayers for these projects if there are private investors who will take it on instead.
29 August 2007
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