The shift to renewable energy sources in Michigan – particularly wind – has picked up in the past few years and could get more of a boost as the Obama administration seeks a 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2030, advocates and utility companies say.
“Wind energy has been the primary source of new renewable energy in Michigan,” John Quackenbush, the chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission, said recently as he addressed green energy proponents at the Michigan Energy Fair in Mason.
One reason: It’s about half as expensive to produce than utility companies initially expected, down to as little as $50 a megawatt hour last year from more than $100 a megawatt hour in 2009, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission.
In the past few years, wind power in Michigan has created jobs, given rise to new companies that supply components – such as Ventower Industries in Monroe – and even inspired a few school projects and tourism. The nonprofit group, Natural Resources Defense Council, says Michigan is home to about 120 companies that supply wind components and employ 4,000.
The Lansing region is home to a few wind industry suppliers, including Eaton Rapids-based Astraeus Wind Energy Inc., part of Dowding Industries Inc., a manufacturer also based in Eaton Rapids. Astraeus executives said the industry in the U.S. appears to be picking up again after federal production tax credits expired last year, which created uncertainty in the market.
A state law that requires 10 percent of electricity produced come from renewable sources by the end of next year has increased demand and helped propel the construction of wind farms. Michigan still gets more than half, 54 percent, of its power from coal, a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.
Since the state law passed in 2008, utilities have invested more than $2.2 billion in renewable technology, including building hundreds of wind turbines.
There now are more than 20 wind farms in Michigan that are operational and in development, the public service commission said.
More renewable energy also has become a big part of the equation. Because of that demand, Michigan’s growing wind business has meant falling prices for residential consumers.
To cover the extra cost of green energy production, residential customers have been paying a utility surcharge. This year, largely because of the lower cost of wind, DTE Energy has reduced its surcharge from $3 per meter a month to 43 cents, and Consumers Energy is eliminating its surcharge altogether, down from $2.50 starting in July. The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the cost cuts June 19.
Wind farms – which sprout towers 400 feet tall – have been praised and derided.
Some Michiganders don’t like the turbines’ humming noise from the whirling blades. They complain that the towers ruin views. As a source of power, wind farms are less reliable and efficient than coal- or gas-fired power plants, largely because wind comes and goes.
Locally, a Chicago-based wind-power developer, Forest Hill Energy, has been trying since November 2008 to create a $120 million, utility-grade wind project in Clinton County west of St. Johns. The project would feature 39 turbines, each topping out at 427 feet at the height of the blade rotation, on land leased from several owners of rural property.
In April 2010, the county’s Board of Commissioners passed a wind energy ordinance and Forest Hill Energy prepared to apply for a permit to build the project. However, in response to a community outcry, the county placed a moratorium on issuing permits and licenses for wind energy systems until it passed a revised ordinance in 2011.
Three townships then passed ordinances that were more restrictive than the county’s in regard to height, noise, setback and shadow flicker. Forest Hill sued the townships and won last October in circuit court. The townships’ appeal of that decision is scheduled to be argued before the Michigan Court of Appeals on July 16.
Utility companies, however, say wind farms are a clean source of power and increasingly less expensive than they used to be. Wind, after all, is free, and after a wind farm is built, it takes fewer people to operate than a power plant.
Michigan went from a capacity of 2.4 megawatts of wind power in 2007 to 287 megawatts in 2011, enough to power more than 120,000 homes. The state is expected to produce an additional 3,000 megawatts as more projects are developed, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Consumers Energy, owned by Jackson-based CMS Energy Corp., built its first wind farm, Lake Winds, on the west side of the state in Mason County in 2012. It has 56 turbines.
Consumers is now building a second, $255 million wind farm, Cross Winds, in Tuscola County in the Thumb. It should be completed by the end of the year, said utility spokesman Brian Wheeler. Plans for Cross Winds call for 62 turbines. The project also is expected to create about 150 construction jobs.
“Wind has high potential,” Wheeler said. “We think it’s a reliable source at an affordable price.”
Astraeus Chairman Roger Cope said the firm’s wind business has been dry over the last several years, partly because of uncertainty about the fate of federal tax credits that offset the cost of building wind farms. Astraeus builds components for wind turbines. Many wind turbine manufacturers used suppliers overseas as domestic demand began to grow. Also, a planned foundry near Astraeus’ headquarters never materialized.
However, Cope said a European company that supplies an American turbine maker recently contacted Astraeus about the possibility of building its parts. A deal hasn’t been reached.
“(We’re) starting to get inquiries from manufacturers again,” he said. “It hasn’t been until the last six months or so that now everybody’s got enough confidence going forward that they’re prepared to bring in new suppliers and to demand more domestically produced product for the U.S. market, which we’re happy about.”
Wind rules in Thumb
DTE Energy Co., which has acquired wind development rights on 80,000 acres, is planning a fifth wind park, also in the Thumb.
The Detroit-based utility commissioned its first wind farm in 2012. The others are Thumb Wind in Huron and Sanilac counties; Gratiot County Wind in the middle of the state; Pheasant Run Wind, which was renamed Brookfield Wind, and Echo Wind, both also in Huron County.
Among renewable energy sources, wind is most abundant and economical, said Irene Dimitry, a DTE vice president.
Most of the wind farms are in the Thumb, she said, because the peninsula tends to be rural and wind is strongest as it blows over water, then land, and heads back out to water.
Still, she added, there may be a limit to how many turbines a community will allow to be built, and winds tend to be strongest during spring and fall, the opposite seasons in Michigan when power demand is highest. DTE and other utilities rely on other energy sources to compensate for this.
DTE and Consumers Energy expect to meet their renewable energy target of 10 percent by the end of 2015, largely because of wind, and will consider building more wind parks.
This is good news for suppliers like Ventower, which started building giant towers for the wind turbines in 2011 and has been steadily growing.
Ventower, which operates a 115,000-square-foot factory, employs about 110 workers, said Scott Viciana. Just about every day now, he said, trucks loaded with tower sections are leaving the factory to rumble up to the Thumb and other Midwest locations where the tower parts are being assembled and erected.
“From our perspective, wind has supported job growth and manufacturing,” Viciana said. “We’re a clear result of that.”
State Journal reporters Lindsay VanHulle and Steven R. Reed contributed to this report. Frank Witsil is a business writer for the Detroit Free Press.
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