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‘Ridge’ apple farms may become wind farms

The rumors have blown in the wind for several years – that green power companies were eyeing rich farmland known as the Ridge in Kent and Ottawa counties for major wind farms.

A pair of companies quietly have competed against each other to buy up leases for wind turbines that would tower above apple trees and pastures in places like Sparta and Chester townships. They could be high enough to be seen from downtown Grand Rapids.

Some farmers in Kent and Ottawa counties hope to become part of a national phenomenon. A U.S. Energy Department report released Monday said that wind can produce a fifth of the nation’s electricity needs within about two decades – about the same amount produced now by nuclear power.

The report talks of the possibility of 75,000 new wind turbines by 2030 and an expanded transmission system to move the power to other parts of the country.

A Spanish company soon will install a nearly 200-foot-high tower on an alfalfa farm in Chester Township to test whether the wind is strong enough to produce a steady flow of electricity.

“It’s as far out there as we can get it so it won’t ruin our sunset,” said Janice Reister, pointing to the rolling field behind her family’s home on 8th Avenue where the test tower will be built in what could become the “Chester Heights Wind Project.”

Iberdrola Renewables of Spain refuses to discuss details of its pursuit on the Ridge, citing competitive pressure.

“We’re looking in the area, trying to put up a couple of test towers for wind data,” said Dan Litchfield, who is working on the project for Iberdrola, the world’s leader in renewable energy development. “That’s all I can say about our project at this time.”

However, company officials told Chester Township leaders they hope to build 30 to 35 towers in the area, township Clerk Jan Redding said.

The township, which approved a wind farm ordinance several years ago, gave the company permission in April to build its first test tower on the Reister farm at 8th and Gooding Street.

A map displayed by Iberdrola showed it had leased “quite a few parcels” in the southeast corner of the township and was trying to obtain leases on more land, Redding said.

In Sparta Township, Iberdrola’s Litchfield is expected to appear Tuesday before the Planning Commission on a request to build a test tower on a farm on Phelps Avenue NW between 14 and 15 Mile roads.

“He wants to get started right away,” Township Clerk Bonnie Robinson said. “He’s been pressuring us to get this going and have a public hearing.”

She expects the full township board to approve the test tower next month. “I think it would be a great thing,” she said.

At the same time, Traverse City-based Heritage Sustainable Energy says it has signed leases with farmers covering 4,000 acres around the ridge.

Heritage officials said it could take two to four years to start harvesting local wind. They envision 15 to 30 wind turbines on the ridge.

“It seems that the land owners are open to investigating the idea with us,” said Heritage project coordinator Rick Wilson.

Heritage, which is building its first wind farm in Missaukee County near McBain, says the wind appears favorable on the highest points of the ridge, though tests are needed to confirm that and to determine the best sites for turbines.

The Ridge also would work because of existing high-voltage transmission lines, which would carry the wind-produced electricity, he said.

Wilson said it also helps that “the city of Grand Rapids is really trying to orient themselves into being a green city.”

The wind farm would “be a pretty prominent element on the landscape,” he said. “You’d probably be able to see it from downtown Grand Rapids.”

Michigan is the 14th windiest state in the continental U.S. and is second to Minnesota in wind potential among the Great Lakes states, but it’s near the bottom nationally in turning it into electricity.

The Ridge is one of several areas Heritage is considering for wind farms. The company has signed leases for about 50,000 around the state, including the Thumb, Wilson said.

The state’s first commercial-scale wind farm opened this year in the Thumb – 32 turbines developed by John Deere Wind Energy on 3,200 acres of farmland between Elkton and Pigeon in Huron County. The turbines produce enough energy to power 15,000 homes.

On the Ridge, Wilson would expect turbines anywhere from 400 feet to 475 feet tall to the tip of the blades – more than 100 feet taller than the biggest building in Grand Rapids.

He’s not sure how much electricity each tower would produce. The turbines in the Thumb each produce 1.65-megawatts, but wind farms are moving toward bigger towers capable of producing 2.5 to 3 megawatts, Wilson said.

He expects to seek zoning approval in a year from local townships.

“Obviously, zoning is a big part of it,” he said. “We’re going to need some permits. We probably have to have language in zoning ordinances for wind-energy development.”

So far, residents haven’t objected, said Redding, the Chester Township clerk.

“I haven’t had anybody say, ‘Oh, are you kidding me?'” Redding said. “There may be some who object to the towers; we may have to cross that bridge when we come to it.”

Wind farms would provide income to farmers through leases and could help preserve agriculture, Redding said.

Harland Reister, 80, who leases out his 140 acres for farming, said he’s looking forward to the test tower, though Iberdrola officials haven’t told him when it’s going up.

Wind power makes sense, he said. “Wind is pretty free, you know, at least it doesn’t take any oil or gasoline to make it.”

by Ken Kolker | Chronicle News Service


12 May 2008