LAKE TOWNSHIP – This small Saginaw Bay community describes itself as “the hidden treasure of the Thumb” for its sandy beaches, pristine woods and tranquil inland lake.
And many here want to keep it that way.
But there’s a looming specter that some believe threatens to mar the rural landscape: wind turbines, the windmill-like structures that can tower to heights of 400 feet and use wind to generate electricity.
Officials here are considering banning turbines within township boundaries, saying they disrupt the idyllic countryside and put wildlife at risk.
But with pending federal and state legislation pushing for renewable energy sources over fossil fuels, observers say Lake Township may be fighting the tides of change.
What’s more, utility companies are already eying large swaths of land in “wind-rich” Huron County for future turbine fields. And when the state’s first large-scale wind park begins to spin here next month, Michigan’s wind energy production will soon increase by more than tenfold.
The Thumb a prime spot
Wind currents spin the blades of a turbine, which in turn rotates a shaft inside a generator and produces electricity. Though turbines generally cost more than conventional electricity generation, more power companies are turning to wind power to meet the demand of eco-conscious consumers. Michigan has just six turbines generating electricity, mostly around Traverse City and Mackinac.
However, with Gov. Jennifer Granholm pushing the state Legislature to require that 25 percent of energy in Michigan come from renewable sources by 2025, the scramble for turbine sites has already begun, most notably in the Thumb, where offshore and inland wind speeds are among the fastest in the state.
“We can’t come in and force-feed windmills on people if they don’t want them,” said Trevor Lauer, vice president of retail marketing for DTE Energy. But “if the state wants an aggressive (renewable energy portfolio), there’s going to be a thousand windmills built in the Thumb.”
DTE representatives say the company is still in early stages of deciding whether to locate turbines in Huron County. But during the last nine months, the company has secured building easements on 30,000 acres and is just one of at least four companies elbowing each other for land.
In Lake Township, a community of just 1,076, officials were jolted to action this summer when DTE informed them the company had already signed lease agreements with landowners on 4,300 acres – a third of township land. At full capacity, that could mean as many as 430 turbines.
“Why are they concentrating in a resort area?” said Louis Colletta, chairman of the planning commission, the township body drafting an ordinance that would ban commercial wind turbines here.
DTE officials insist they’re not targeting the small township, but in fact most of the rural county.
Nevertheless, the company is facing fierce resistance there. Last month, the zoning board of appeals rejected DTE’s request to set up a 197-foot meteorological tower that would have measured wind strength for at least a year before the company decides to build a single turbine here.
Tim Lalley, one of the board members who voted against the request, said his biggest concern was that the turbines could potentially kill local eagles as well as tundra swans that fly through in fall and spring migrations.
Avian experts are equally concerned.
“When you’ve got as many as 12,000 tundra swans (in one day) that like to come inland by 15 miles, that represents a bad spot” for turbines, said Caleb Putnam, coordinator with the National Audubon Society in Michigan in Grand Rapids.
With improved designs, wind experts estimate bird kills per turbine average two to five per year.
DTE officials, for their part, say they will construct their measuring tower just outside the township and are studying the potential impact on local fowl. They are also working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is devising guidelines on the location of wind turbines to minimize harm to birds in flight.
Wind farm to open
Meanwhile, wind power in the Thumb is moving forward. A large wind park is set to begin operating next month, just four miles south of Lake Township’s borders.
Harvest Wind Farm, which will supply the Wolverine Power Cooperative, includes 32 turbines rising 400 feet in height out of corn and soybean fields in Oliver and Chandler townships. The state’s first commercial-scale wind park is expected to power 15,000 homes.
Three of those 32 turbines are on land owned by Bob Krohn, clerk of Oliver Township. They will earn him about $7,500 each annually.
He said he couldn’t understand why Lake Township was so resistant to windmills.
“They need the extra money and it’s going to be a boost to the farmers and the township,” he said.
And despite local opposition in nearby Ubly, Noble Environmental Power is approved to construct a 46-turbine wind park there by 2009 on behalf of Consumers Energy.
“It really tells me Huron County has joined modern society,” said Russel Lundberg, the county’s building and zoning official. “We’ve preserved the agricultural heritage of the county and provided a strategy for alternate energy development.”
But in Lake Township, the issue has been most divisive.
The Kretchmer family is among the many farmers who have signed lease agreements with DTE, each of whom would be paid a one-time fee of $10,000 for each turbine built on their property, plus a small percentage of the energy sales.
“It would mean a lot to the business to have that kind of income,” said Mark Kretchmer, 36, a third-generation farmer in the area, who leased 1,000 acres of his family’s township land.
But if township officials follow through on the ban, the Kretchmers and others would see no money at all.
“It’s really disappointing,” Kretchmer said. “It just seems Lake Township wants to stand still or take a step back in time rather than be a leader in the area.”
Views of the structures would be blocked by a thick ridgeline of trees for most township residents, who live on the shore. But lakefront resident Tony Messina would still prefer that the energy companies go elsewhere.
“I’d rather see none of them,” said Messina, 70, who has homes here and in Clarkston.
Interestingly enough, the debate here doesn’t seem to run along political beliefs about wind energy. Instead, the issue has pitted relative newcomers against descendants of longtime landowners, who want the right to reap what their land can produce – in this case, income from wind energy.
The newcomers, mostly transplants who moved here from more urban climes, convey a sense of duty to protect the gem they chose as an escape.
Many of them sit on township boards, like Lalley. He moved here from Grand Rapids 10 years ago.
“Why would you want to harm what we have here?”
By Catherine Jun
15 November 2007
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