Big wind farms generate not just power but a lot of controversy. There’s been quite a debate in northern Michigan recently about the effects on safety, health, property values and the landscape.
Smaller scale projects called community wind are designed to avoid those criticisms. But there are still roadblocks.
Opportunity for Wind
Northport is a picturesque village that sits near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. For the past two years, a group of residents there, mostly retirees, has been working to put up one small wind turbine.
Doug McInnis says the opportunity just about fell into their laps. “There was this unique spot. There was a hill. And it’s near right where you want to put the energy,” McInnis says. “We’re right near a substation. I mean all these things come together and it just says, hey, this is a natural.”
The village owns the hill that rises just behind its new sewage treatment plant. From the hilltop, the turbine will supply half the electricity for the plant. It will be about half the size of the windmill outside Traverse City and a fraction of the size of new commercial turbines.
State maps show that Leelanau Township has the best sites for wind energy in the Lower Peninsula. McInnis thinks it makes sense to take advantage of opportunities now that will benefit the entire community for years to come. “People are concerned about the future generations,” McInnis says. “And if we don’t start thinking and moving in other directions I don’t know what’s going to happen. It ain’t gonna be good.”
Form Private Company
But moving in the direction of renewable energy even for a small village is not easy. The Northport Energy group has some pretty impressive credentials, though. McInnis is a former aerospace engineer.
Another member, Tom Gallery, is a retired automotive engineer. Gallery says they’ve sometimes put in twenty to thirty hours a week. “We do this for free, OK. We’ve all failed retirement.”
They also formed a private company and put up their own money to finance the turbine, along with more than a dozen other investors. That allows them to use federal tax credits and incentives that would not be available to the village of Northport.
They’ve had to file reams of paperwork, figure and refigure the design, and work out the legal and financial details. Nobody expects to make much money here. Tom Gallery says the idea is to show this can work. “I think it’s been slow. And there’s a learning process involved,” Gallery says. “But I think we’ve got a real solid project. I’m very confident that it will work out.”
The investors expect to make their money back, plus four percent, in about ten years. After that, they’ll turn the turbine over to the village free and clear. Then the windmill is expected to cut Northport’s energy bill by about thirty-thousand dollars a year for at least ten years.
Despite the benefits of local owners generating clean energy and using it on site, community wind projects are rare in Michigan. And Steve Smiley says it’s because the state makes them difficult to do. “Every time we turn a corner someone’s putting up a wall in front of us.”
Smiley is the project manager for Leelanau Energy. He says, under state rules, there’s an incentive to keep these projects smaller by paying less for the electricity as the projects get bigger. Originally, the Northport turbine was designed to supply all the electricity at the sewage plant. But at the lower rate, the numbers didn’t make sense.
And Smiley says if state rules required a fair price for all community wind it be a lot easier to do. “We wouldn’t have to go through tons and tons of paperwork and complications and have twenty or thirty people involved for a year just to try to do a piddly little project.”
Local Roadblocks Too
But it’s not just state rules that stymie community wind. Sometimes local governments make it difficult. Emmet County for instance has a very strict noise limit for wind turbines.
That’s put a kink in a small windmill that Chris Stahl is developing for a farm and community kitchen near Cross Village. It will produce less than a tenth of the electricity of the Northport turbine.
Stahl is president of Lake Effect Energy in Harbor Springs. He was able to get around the county restriction by having neighboring landowners agree to a higher noise limit. But it means he has to install meters to measure and keep track of sound at their property lines.
“We haven’t even broke ground on the project yet and we’re already over budget due to the sixteen month process to get the permits and also to buy the additional sound metering equipment,” Stahl says.
The project is only going forward because his client is willing to absorb the extra costs. Eventually, Stahl believes, community wind will catch on as barriers are broken down and people see how it works.
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