Wind power has been slow to take off in Michigan, but that’s about to change in a big way.
Developers are gearing up to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build more than a dozen wind farms during the next few years in the Thumb, western Michigan and in Hillsdale and Lenawee counties in southern Michigan.
Next year alone, six new wind farms are expected to begin operations, quadrupling the amount of wind power generated in the state.
But these plans to install hundreds of wind turbines have not been embraced eagerly by everyone. In some areas, residents – worried that the turbines will harm property values, their health and their quality of life – are fighting developers.
Riga Township in Lenawee County recently passed tougher zoning regulations that increases the required distance between wind turbines and residents’ homes and mandates lower noise levels than what was previously permitted.
“We consider it a victory for the health, safety and welfare of our residents,” said Kevon Martis, director of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, which had pushed for the stricter rules. “If wind farms are going to be built, they need to be sited safely.”
Residents vs. wind farms
They may have a reputation for being clean and green, but wind farms are sparking controversy in Michigan.
Residents in several townships have banded together to fight wind farms being planned for their communities. And a group of property owners in the Thumb is suing a former wind farm developer, alleging the wind turbines it installed are giving them headaches and nausea, disturbing their sleep and causing other health problems.
The opposition comes as the state stands on the verge of a boom in wind energy, with at least 15 new wind farms slated to begin operations during the next few years. These projects are expected to generate enough electricity to power more than a half-million homes. Today, wind farms in Michigan produce enough power for about 50,000 homes.
“We’re going to see a lot of activity,” said John Sarver, chairman of the Michigan Wind Working Group, which promotes the development of wind energy. He estimates that more than a thousand wind turbines will be installed in the state in coming years.
So far, wind opponents have not derailed any projects. But they have won two battles involving how far wind turbines – which can rise almost 500 feet into the air – should be located from homes.
How much of an impact these grassroots efforts will ultimately have on the development of wind energy in Michigan remains to be seen. Individual townships and counties, not the state, are deciding where wind turbines can be installed and how much noise they can make. So the skirmishes between developers and turbine opponents are playing out during meetings of county planning commissions and township boards.
Some Michiganders worry wind turbines will decrease their property values, cause health problems and kill birds, bats and other wildlife. Proponents of wind energy argue that wind farms do not harm property values or people’s health and steps can be taken to minimize their impact on birds and other creatures.
“For a well-sited wind farm, the environmental impacts are very, very minor,” said Doug Duimering, a regional manager for business development at Exelon Wind, which is developing three wind farms in the state. He also said several studies have shown that wind turbines do not lower property values.
Many anti-turbine residents acknowledge they can’t stop the projects. They say their goal is making sure turbines are located at safe distances from people’s homes and businesses.
“If they want to come into a community, they have to be responsible about it,” said Chuck Beale, one of the founders of Citizens for Responsible Wind Development, which is fighting plans for a large wind farm in Manistee and Benzie counties. Wind farms “are not right for every township and every community. It will change the landscape significantly.”
The Michigan Environmental Council is currently developing a list of best practices for onshore commercial wind farm developers to follow. “We are supportive if (the wind farms) are properly located,” said James Clift, the organization’s policy director.
The clashes between anti-turbine residents and developers have resulted in a 1-mile buffer zone in Reading Township in Hillsdale County and moratoriums on wind farms in several townships in Manistee and Benzie counties.
Even in the Thumb, which has been receptive to wind energy, 10 couples on the outskirts of Ubly in Huron County are suing John Deere Renewables, the developer of a wind farm called Michigan Wind I. They allege that the wind farm was negligently designed and its 46 turbines violate public and private nuisance laws.
John Deere, which sold the wind farm to Exelon Wind last year, declined to comment. If efforts to reach a settlement do not succeed, the case will go to a jury trial in October.
But the biggest backlash against wind turbines is taking place in Lenawee County, south of Washtenaw County. In a key victory for anti-wind farm residents, Riga Township – where two developers had planned to install turbines – passed tougher zoning regulations for wind farms this month.
The push for these regulations was led by a grassroots group called the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition.
“Turbines need to be away from people,” said Kevon Martis, the group’s director and a Riga resident. He noted that Lenawee is much more densely populated than the Thumb’s Huron County, the most popular area for wind farms in Michigan. His group aims to pass similar regulations in nearby Ogden Township.
Duimering said the new ordinance will prevent his company from putting any turbines in Riga, so it is now focusing on two other townships, Palmyra and Ogden. Efforts are under way to repeal Riga’s new ordinance through a voter referendum this fall, but it’s uncertain whether this campaign will succeed.
Exelon plans to build a 45-turbine wind farm that would generate 81 megawatts of power for Consumers Energy. Juwi Wind US, another developer, also wants to build a wind farm in Riga and Ogden townships. It is in the process of deciding what to do now that Riga has passed tougher zoning rules, said Julie Oelman, the company’s general counsel. “It will affect development plans,” she added.
The debate over wind farms is also more heated in Lenawee than in some other counties because the area is home to the Indiana bat, an endangered species. Allen Kurta, a bat expert and biology professor at Eastern Michigan University, said Lenawee is also the habitat for three other bats that either are on the verge of being endangered or are considered threatened.
“What I am hoping for is that the developers act in a responsible way,” Kurta said. Exelon said it is conducting a study about the county’s bats.
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