They look like small propellers from a distance.
But up close, new wind turbines dotting corn and sugar-beet farmland in Michigan’s Thumb are anything but specks on the horizon. They’re as tall as a 26-story building and have three 135-foot-long blades that, with the rotor, weigh a combined 145,000 pounds.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm last week toured the 32-turbine Harvest Wind Farm between Pigeon and Elkton in Huron County’s Oliver Township. She says the sheer size alone of a turbine is an economic opportunity for Michigan. The turbines at the state’s first commercial-scale wind farm that opened in January were shipped all the way from Europe, which Granholm suspects was neither cheap nor easy.
“That’s ridiculous. We should be making them right here,” she said.
The governor says Michigan already has advantages to attract companies that make components for wind turbines – manufacturing capacity, skilled workers and a windy shoreline – along with the ability to transport parts and supplies on the Great Lakes.
But one crucial ingredient is missing, Granholm says – a law requiring that a certain amount of the state’s electricity come from renewable sources such as wind. Twenty-five states have what’s known as a renewable portfolio standard, or RPS, and a few others have voluntary goals.
Michigan is losing out, Granholm says, while the demand for wind power soars globally and states with renewable mandates “create a market” for green energy, attracting investment in wind farms and plants that make blades and other parts.
The United States led the world in wind-power installations for a third straight year in 2007, with 45 percent growth and enough new green energy to power more than 1.5 million homes.
Granholm, a Democrat, says if she can sign RPS legislation pending in the Republican-led state Senate, wind-energy manufacturers would come to the state and “be guaranteed a market right close to where the demand is.”
The bill would require that 10 percent of electricity sold in Michigan be from renewable sources by the end of 2015. Approximately 3 percent of power now sold to Michigan customers is generated by renewable sources.
Senate Energy and Technology Chairman Bruce Patterson, a Canton Republican, could be key in determining the fate of renewable requirements. He says he won’t stand in the way of the 10 percent requirement passed by the Democratic-controlled House because there are safeguards to eliminate the mandate if green power costs too much more than traditional coal-fired or nuclear power. But he isn’t sure other Republican senators will get on board.
He also expresses concern about a Standard & Poor’s report on power produced by wind. It’s still an “infinitesimal” fraction of all electricity, according to the report, which last month raised concerns about the feasibility and cost ramifications of forcing U.S. utilities to comply with renewable mandates. Costs eventually show up on the monthly bills of residents and businesses.
And in Michigan, some opposition stems from a philosophical dislike of government mandates. The 52-megawatt farm visited by Granholm exists without an RPS, for instance, and developers already have proposed an additional 3,000 megawatts of wind power in 16 Michigan counties.
Others question the job-creation potential since wind farms don’t employ many workers after construction is complete. Patterson agrees more jobs will be created if Michigan taps into the potential of making turbine blades, “but the question is at what cost to the rest of the state?”
When traveling Michigan to tout the potential of green energy, Granholm primarily focuses on jobs. But other benefits include saving the state from having to build some coal-fired power plants that emit pollution and greenhouse gases linked to global warming. Michigan also exports billions of dollars to buy coal and natural gas used to generate its electricity and heat.
Terry Sturm, a Huron County property owner who’s leasing his land for some of the Harvest Wind Farm turbines, says he thinks his rural community has embraced wind technology mainly because it’s the right thing to do. A local elementary school uses its own windmills and solar panels to generate energy. And the Noble Thumb Windpark in Huron and Sanilac counties plans to build 106 turbines in 2008 and 2009.
It would take 183,600 tons of coal a year to make the same amount of energy that will come from the Noble wind project. Over 20 years, that’s enough to fill a 417-mile-long coal train.
“It’s time to be willing to do something to get more energy independence,” Sturm said.
By David Eggert
Associated Press Writer
28 April 2008