MANISTIQUE – Speaking to a primarily anti-wind audience, a Heritage Sustainable Energy employee attempted to defend the company’s projects and goals during Tuesday’s meeting of the Schoolcraft County Board of Commissioners. The Traverse Citybased company had been planning to possibly construct a wind turbine farm, similar to the one in Garden, in Inwood Township.
Heritage first agreed to present to the board back in April, when commissioners invited the company to state its case before they made a decision about a proposed amendment to the Schoolcraft County Zoning Ordinance. In the amendment, which updated sections 102 and 508 of the ordinance, wind energy grid systems, like the one being proposed by Heritage, would have to meet numerous regulations before construction.
Among those regulations are set backs of at least 3,960 feet (three-quarters of a mile) from all lot lines, high-water marks, public/ private right-of-ways, easements, neighboring dwellings and businesses. The systems must also be set back 5,280 feet (one mile) from any scenic areas, parks, highways, and recreational areas. A third setback restriction of 2,640 feet (one-half of a mile) from any state or national forests is also stipulated by the amendment.
Despite initial claims from commissioners that no action would be taken until they received more information from Heritage and other wind energy experts, the board voted on June 5 to adopt the proposed zoning amendments. Up until that point, commissioners had heard from residents, an anti-wind group based in Inwood Township, the Schoolcraft County prosecuting attorney, a Michigan State University Extension presenter, and the head of the Cloverland Electric Cooperative.
Following the board’s adoption of the amendments to the ordinance, commissioners received a letter from Heritage, stating the company felt this constituted “exclusionary zoning” – meaning the creation of zoning restrictions specifically meant to prohibit certain lawful land uses. Commissioners had previously discussed exclusionary zoning, and the potential of a lawsuit from engaging in such a practice, and had been advised by both the county’s prosecuting attorney and the MSU Extension expert that the ordinance amendments could, in fact, amount to exclusionary zoning.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Rick Wilson, vice president of operations for Heritage, presented the company’s side of the Inwood County project, immediately noting that he wished the presentation could have been made before the county took any action on the ordinance amendments.
He noted that wind energy is part of the state’s Renewable Energy Standard, outlined in Public Act 295, which states that Michigan electric providers must achieve a retail supply portfolio that includes at least ten percent renewable energy by 2015. Wilson said this standard was developed, in part, due to the amount of state energy resources that come from out of state.
“We send about $18 billion into others states and other countries in the world in order to generate our power,” he said.
Wilson noted that even the area’s primary energy provider, Cloverland, purchases approximately 66 percent of its energy from Wisconsin.
“Right now, wind is probably the most cost efficient way to generate power in the U.S.,” he said.
Wilson asked residents to contemplate the source of the power each time flip a switch in their homes.
“It’s coming from somewhere – it’s in somebody’s backyard,” he said. “Power’s a necessity. We don’t do our wind farms just because we think we’re going to make a few bucks … it’s a renewable, clean resource.”
Elaborating on the “green” aspect of wind energy, Wilson outlined the consequences of relying so heavily on coal for power production.
“You guys understand what coal does to the environment, to people. You read about miners dying,” he said. “That’s because you want to turn your lights on – just like I do.”
Wilson went over the financial benefit of the Garden Wind Farm, noting the turbines in that area have produced approximately $471,000 that has been paid to Delta County as of 2014, and around $400,000 that has been distributed as royalties to participating landowners.
Between the Garden Wind Farm and the company’s Stoney Corners Wind Farm, almost a terawatt of power has been produced, Wilson said, which, if produced by coal, would result in 24.5 human deaths and over 200,000 illnesses.
“We’re talking about human lives for coal, and that we’re offsetting with wind,” he said.
Wilson noted that 10 percent of the energy “load” produced by the Garden Wind Farm was used by Cloverland Electric.
“Consumer’s (Energy) – they’re paying for it, but it’s still being sent out into this greater grid and used locally,” he said.
Touching on the county’s amended ordinance, Wilson showed a map of available areas Heritage would now be able to place a wind turbine – which were almost nonexistent.
“Basically, you can’t do it,” he said.
In summary, Wilson said the state has certain resources the state can use and benefit from – one being wind. He also noted that the company is not entirely sure a project in the Inwood Township area would be “viable”, and that they were merely in the preliminary stages of testing the wind resource.
Wilson ended by saying that the continued use of power from coal is “not pretty”.
“It affects other people’s lives much more than it affects yours – to be able to turn that light switch on,” he said.
Following Wilson’s presentation, Chairperson Al Grimm raised questions about the location of wind turbines – noting that they should be placed in areas between the Garden Peninsula and Cooks, where no homes are located. Wilson noted that most of that land is state-owned and that Michigan is not yet allowing wind development on this property.
Grimm also asked if Heritage planned on installing additional wind turbines in Garden, despite an alleged recommendation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that the structures be 3,000 feet from the shoreline.
“Potentially, yes,” Wilson answered.
When asked by Commissioner Dan LaFoille what percentage of the Renewable Energy Standard is supplemented by wind energy, Wilson estimated approximately 3.5 percent of the current 7 percent reached.
LaFoille also asked whether the federal government is subsidizing the cost of installing the wind turbines.
Wilson explained the company either receives a production tax credit for 10 years, based upon the amount of power generated, or, for, a few years, a 30 percent of the cost of any project as a cash grant was offered.
He also noted that the company pays the up front cost of installing wind turbines, and doesn’t receive payback until around 9-10 years into operation.
When asked what would happen if a landowner who didn’t sign a lease with Heritage was surrounded by property owners who did, Wilson noted that the non-signing landowner would persevere.
“That one person – he may have one acre in a 640-acre square section – if he decides not to participate, under your ordinance, he would then, in a sense, control the rights of all those landowners within three-quarters of a mile of his property,” he said.
Wilson said the company could work out a royalty system where landowners who don’t sign a lease could be comparably compensated for allowing the turbines.
LaFoille questioned what the “need” for wind energy was in Schoolcraft County, since it wouldn’t “really benefit from the power generated”.
“It’d be so much easier for folks to accept this, I believe, if they were going to receive direct benefit,” he said.
Wilson pointed out that the entire county would receive personal property taxes from the turbines.
Grimm asked about the property values in areas with wind turbines, alleging a 20-40 percent drop in the Garden area. When asked by Wilson to produce data on that figure, he could not.
Commissioner Craig Reiter, who initially spoke favorably of the wind turbines, frequently stating he owns a windmill and once pointing out that the wind farm in Huron County helped that county reach the highest tax revenue in Michigan, noting, “Just another thing I found interesting on how good it is to have windmills”, has since changed his mind.
During Tuesday’s meeting, he reiterated LaFoille’s comments, asking Wilson why Schoolcraft County needed wind turbines.
“I think the ‘need’ goes beyond you,” said Wilson. “Not every place has the criteria necessary for wind power … the need is for power; the need is the state of Michigan mandated it for utilities.
Do you need property tax revenue? Do you need personal property tax revenue?” he continued. “Do you need money for your schools; for your roads? Do you need jobs?”
When wind turbine subsidies again entered the discussion, Commissioner Jerry Zellar pointed out that oil subsidies exist as well. Wilson agreed with this, noting that the subsidies for wind were still warranted, as it is such a young industry.
“You need those subsidies to kind of get out of the gate,” he said. “Our original contracts – super expensive – at $110 per megawatt hour. That’s what we’re getting paid for our power generation at Stoney Corners Wind Farm, and, actually, a few wind turbines down here (Garden).”
He added the current contract Heritage has with DTE Energy pays $53 per megawatt hour.
Grimm pointed out that the wind would be considered a “great asset” for Schoolcraft County.
“It may be, all I want you guys to do is consider the opportunity,” Wilson said.
Grimm expressed concern about Heritage beginning with landowners instead of the “county government”, adding that commissioners were left “uneducated”, “misinformed” and having “a lot of catching up to do”.
Wilson pointed out that the company follows a process, and usually attempts to establish a “land base” before approaching the government.
Emails obtained by a group of Cooks residents show the county’s building inspector was communicating with a Heritage employee in December 2013.
LaFoille asked what Wilson’s impression of having “these [sic] many folks show up at the meeting with all these concerns”, noting he had a list of 25 questions from residents.
“There’s obviously concern – they’re worried about their community,” LaFoille said.
He added that the county adopted the amendments to the ordinance to have a template in place for the Schoolcraft County Zoning Board of Appeals to use.
“We’re not against progress,” LaFoille explained, noting that there are those for and against wind turbines and that one group shouldn’t be able to impose their will on the other. He also pointed out that the issue has divided a once united community, and the ordinance amendment was meant as a starting point to resolve that division.
“Yes, we’re restrictive, no question,” he said. “The one place that we don’t want this to go is this room (the circuit courtroom) in another circumstance … It’s not that we want to be exclusionary – that’s a bad word. Restrictive, yes, it is.”
Commissioner Sue Cameron asked where a hand-drawn map showing potential wind turbine sites in Inwood Township had originated.
“There was a map given as part of a permit process,” he said. “Those were preliminary sites … those were sites that could have been feasible in the event that additional leases were acquired or things like that.”
Wilson added that there is no time frame established with the Inwood Township site, and that the company is not “secretive”.
The discussion between commissioners and Wilson ended with LaFoille asking if the county could consider letting residents vote on the issue.
“Correct,” Wilson answered.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding