HURON COUNTY – Sarah Mills hopes townships deciding whether or not to allow wind energy development can take the results of her study and understand the likely impacts.
Mills, a University of Michigan doctoral candidate from Monroe County, wrapped up a two-year study of wind parks in Huron County and presented her findings Tuesday.
“Essentially, before, it was either pro-wind people or anti-wind people that were telling you this,” Mills said. “This is a third-party study telling you this.”
Mills gathered data from Michigan Wind I in Ubly; Harvest I in Oliver and Chandler townships; DTE Energy’s project in Sigel and Bloomfield townships; and Stoney Corners Wind Farm, which contains 29 wind turbines in Missaukee and Osceola counties.
Surveys were sent to 1,730 landowners in nine townships. Mills, citing a “fantastic” 71 percent response rate, said she is confident that results are representative of the county.
Several landowners’ responses illuminate “one of the things that people don’t talk about,” Mills said.
“Your community should know that there will be blinking red lights at night,” Mills said. “That was a big concern that people were sharing with me.”
There’s also a takeaway in terms of economic impacts of wind energy.
“(Economic impacts) are really felt by the people with turbines on their property, but not so much by anybody else,” Mills said, adding that spreading economic benefits more broadly could be a good thing.
In townships where developers forecast high revenue and a number of new jobs, “citizens were less satisfied because developers overpromised and under-delivered,” Mills said.
But those who are “anti-wind energy” seem to be the minority, she said – and the study also highlighted positive responses from landowners.
Mills says interviews and data show people with turbines on their land are more likely to have a succession plan in place.
“People were telling me that ‘Now our kids see a future in farming,’ ” Mills said.
Results show 80 percent of those surveyed who have turbines on their property have a succession plan in place, compared to 62 percent of their neighbors.
“This holds up even when you account for the size of the farming operation,” she said.
Results also indicate that wind developers, local officials and residents agree on one thing: wind should be regulated at the local level.
“Again, probably not surprising to many of you in this room,” Mills said during discussion at Tuesday’s board of commissioners meeting.
In terms of revenue from easements and leases, Mills said most residents checked a box for $3,000 or more in the survey. Residents reported the extra money helps the farming business, in that it could be used to pay property taxes.
“Does it help? Yes. Tons? No,” Mills said after reviewing responses.
The question of if it is worth it for landowners to receive money from turbines surfaced.
Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning director, said about a half an acre is taken out of farmland production for most 40- to 80-acre fields for a turbine and access road.
“That landowner is receiving … $8,000 to $10,000 for that turbine and access road to be there,” The (Michigan Department of Agriculture) looks at $200 an acre as net farm income typically. If they’re getting $8,000 to $10,000 for half an acre, that’s why the farmers are doing it.”
[In the study, t]itled “Farming the Wind: Preserving Agriculture through Wind Energy Development,” Mills sought answers to the following questions:
• Do revenues rural landowners receive from wind energy projects change their on-farm investments or long-term succession plans?
• How does proximity to a wind farm impact residential demand for farmland?
• How do zoning ordinances affect availability of developable land in the area surrounding a wind farm?
Mills said she also spoke with township supervisors, assessors, realtors and auctioneers. In doing so, she heard a “really interesting” prospect.
“There might actually be a possible connection between wind income and new home building,” Mills said. “A couple supervisors were telling me there are new houses being built in these townships with wind turbines, and they’re being built by people who have turbines on their property.”
The study showed participating landowners are more likely to build a new home, but that those not on farmland are still building.
“My hypothesis was that people don’t want to build a brand new house in the midst of a wind farm,” Mills said. “I didn’t find that that’s actually the case.”
What she did find is that people with turbines on their property invest “twice as much as everybody else.”
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