MUSKEGON COUNTY – Muskegon County officials Thursday got a closer look at the potential benefits of wind energy development at the massive wastewater site, and the hurdles to making the project a reality.
They also took one of their first concrete steps: hiring a consultant to help guide the process.
Muskegon County’s public works board and staff members covered a variety of issues regarding the county’s quest to place commercial-sized wind turbines on the 11,000-acre wastewater property. Among them were: an aggressive timeline to hire a private developer, the opportunity for surrounding property owners in Egelston and Moorland townships to get involved, and a federal agency’s concerns over bird kills by wind turbines.
The preliminary plan calls for the county to buy three turbines to produce electricity for its own use in the wastewater system and to select a private developer to erect a wind farm on the site to send electricity to the power grid. The wastewater site is considered an ideal location for potential developers because it is a large site with one owner, has two sets of power lines that cross the property and adequate wind speeds seem to be available.
The larger development, estimated at 150 megawatts and including a $30-$40 million substation, would still be years off before being operational, following the necessary agreements and studies. The county’s internal project of three turbines would need to be erected by the end of 2011 to gain the federal stimulus funds it qualifies for.
County officials took the first step Thursday that required direct financial risk by hiring a consultant, Howard & Howard, a business law firm based in Royal Oak. That firm’s bid of $67,000 was not the lowest, but county officials determined it had the most experience and expertise to help guide the county through the project. The committee – public works board Chairman Marvin Engle and wastewater staff members Mark Eisenbarth and Vivek Singh – made the recommendation.
Eisenbarth, the county’s public works deputy director who oversees the wastewater system, pointed out that three potential issues – a grid connection agreement, the bird-kill issue and securing an electrical company to buy the electricity – must be successfully dealt with to make the project a reality.
“That’s why we want to spend the extra money on Howard & Howard,” Eisenbarth said.
The county’s public works board approved the hiring of Howard & Howard. The company’s experience features work on several wind projects, including the wind farm in Michigan’s “Thumb” area; It also features an attorney who worked for Consumers Energy for 20 years.
The preliminary timeline calls for Howard & Howard to meet with county officials and develop the county’s request for proposals from developers over the next four weeks. Based on a tentative estimate, the county would have a contract signed with a developer within nine months.
County officials outlined two direct financial benefits to the county with the large, private wind farm at the wastewater site. The lease payments from the development would go into the wastewater fund, and the taxes generated would go through the typical allocation formula to all the taxing entities there, including the county.
County Commissioner Jim Derezinski, whose district includes the wastewater site, and Egelston Township Supervisor Mike Thompson also expressed interest in the potential for private landowners to get involved with the project. Depending on the developer selected, private landowners could lease spots for wind turbines as part of the project or in a separate agreement.
“We would like to fit in with this,” Thompson said of interest shown by property owners in his township.
Public Works Director Dave Kendrick predicted that at some point after the private development begins on the wastewater site that it makes economic sense for the developer to place additional turbines nearby.
“They will want more turbines,” Kendrick said.
County officials are continuing to work on the bird-kill concerns raised in a letter from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. County officials contend that the studies they have commissioned show that very few birds would be killed, while officials from the federal wildlife agency pointed to the potential for bird kills by turbine blades spinning near prime bird habitat.
Kendrick said the county is working with a biologist who specializes in the issue to attempt to convince federal and state officials that the project would not create a “significant impact” on birds. A conference call including officials from the county, state Department of Natural Resources and Environment, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife has been scheduled.
The county’s three-turbine project would not be able to receive federal stimulus funds and money from the State Revolving Fund without approval of the federal and state agencies.
The bird-kill concerns from the government agencies would not impact the proposed private development. However, the developer would conduct its own bird and bat studies, county staff said.
Public works board members also briefly discussed the potential involvement of L-3 Combat Propulsion Systems in the project. Local L-3 officials made a presentation to several county commissioners last week, suggesting that the county’s project would be an ideal spot for its prototype magnetic-based generator for wind turbines.
While questions were raised about requiring L-3’s involvement in the bid process for the private development, other possibilities mentioned were to use the L-3 generator in the three county-owned turbines or allow the company to put up a separate turbine at the site.
Company officials have said that its involvement with the project would provide a prime demonstration site and help kick start its push into the wind-energy industry.
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