MUSKEGON, MI – Visions of large, white wind-energy blades sweeping up the horizon have faded five years since a wind farm was proposed for Lake Michigan off the West Michigan coast.
Five years ago, Scandia Wind created quite a stir by proposing a large wind-energy project, generating much discussion and debate in West Michigan, especially in Mason, Oceana, Muskegon and Ottawa counties. After months of talk in 2009 and 2010, the discussion of putting wind turbines in Lake Michigan has been relatively silent since.
Local government officials say offshore wind energy development is the state’s jurisdiction.
State officials conducted a two-year study of the issue but their recommendations don’t include areas in or near West Michigan.
State Sen. Goeff Hansen, R-Hart, said he’s heard little discussion of offshore wind energy in Lansing.
And a top executive at Consumers Energy said there’s not much of a market for the offshore wind energy.
However, the idea of offshore wind refuses to die.
A Facebook group, Yes to West Michigan Wind Power, gathered 8,200 votes and remains active. An engineer speaking in Muskegon said the costs of mechanically setting up turbines could be decreased by new technology. And approaching closer this year is the fact that Michigan lawmakers are set to again consider clean energy standards for energy companies.
Oceana, Mason: ‘Not for sale’
In 2009, wind energy was not only a matter of great public interest – it was part of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration plan to help the state’s economy rebound from the recession. An early report by the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council mapped many areas on the west shore of Michigan that were ideal for offshore wind energy, including a spot near Oceana and Mason counties.
“This was during the early, very heady days of people getting excited about wind energy,” said Arn Boezaart, former director of Grand Valley State University’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center.
Scandia Wind LLC got the public’s attention late that year proposing 100 to 200 utility-sized wind turbines in Lake Michigan south of the Ludington Pump Storage facility and north of Silver Lake State Park.
In January 2010, Scandia representatives Steve Warner and Harald Dirdal gave public presentations on their plans. Hundreds of people packed into high school auditoriums in Ludington and Shelby.
“There were people that supported it,” said Mason County administrator Fabian Knizacky. “The majority were opposed.”
People opposed to the development showed up wearing pins with the slogan “Not For Sale.” Their concerns with turbines ranged from aesthetics to boats hitting the turbines and whether or not it would be financially viable.
“Those folks basically rallied and said, not in my back yard,” Boezaart said. “It was just a fiasco. People up there just came unglued.”
Scandia had hoped to get the Mason County and Oceana County boards of commissioners to support the proposed development, but that sort of formal support never materialized.
“What it came down to for the county was, we really had no jurisdiction there,” Knizacky said. “It really was a state issue.”
The uproar over Scandia was apparent in a second report from the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council to Gov. Granholm, this one in October 2010:
“While some viewed this proposal as a significant economic development opportunity for Michigan’s west coast, the proposal also generated significant public opposition and substantially changed the level of awareness and involvement by the public in offshore wind energy development issues.”
The second report also narrowed its most suitable map to spots that were 45 feet or less deep for at least 20 contiguous square miles. There were only five spots meeting those criteria, and the two that were in Lake Michigan were at its extreme ends – nowhere near Mason or Oceana counties.
Another blow to offshore wind energy on the Great Lakes came last year when the U.S. Department of Energy bypassed a grant application for a Lake Erie pilot project in favor of projects on the East and West coasts.
While the majority of West Michigan voices seemed opposed to the wind farm, a few residents like Eric Justian were excited by the proposal.
“It was in the recession when everyone was really frustrated,” Justian said. He and friends started a facebook group advocating for offshore wind energy near Muskegon. “We didn’t feel like anybody was doing anything. We weren’t tied to anybody.” The group, which he still updates, had 8,206 likes as of Jan. 30, 2015.
The Muskegon Chronicle, too, editorialized in favor of Mason and Oceana counties at least conducting a feasibility study about the wind farm:
“It would be negligent not to at least get the facts before making a decision whether to support a $3 billion investment in West Michigan – an investment that would create ‘thousands’ of jobs for the five to seven years of construction and 100 to 200 jobs for operation and maintenance after that. An investment that could create a whole new offshore wind manufacturing industry and reduce the state’s reliance on coal, gas and oil.”
Scandia later had some interest in partnering with Gamesa Energy USA on a potential development of an on-shore wind development at the Muskegon County Wastewater Treatment System. Talks between Gamesa and Scandia eventually failed, but Muskegon County officials say Gamesa’s proposed development is still alive and well.
Former Scandia Wind LLC CEO Steve Warner didn’t respond to calls seeking comment for this story.
Market guiding legislation
The last report from the Michigan Great Lakes Wind Council also suggested law changes to govern the offshore wind energy. State Sen. Patricia Birkholz, who in 2008 authored the state’s renewable energy standards, tried to pass some of those suggested laws about offshore wind energy.
None of Birkholz’ proposed bills were passed before the Republican from Saugatuck was term-limited out of office at the end of 2010.
Not much has happened with offshore wind energy policy in Lansing since that time.
“I have heard no discussions at all,” Hansen said. “I haven’t heard any discussions since Patty Birkholz was in there.”
Birkholz has remained active in policy-making as West Michigan Director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters. But even she seemed at peace with the direction events have taken.
The push for offshore wind energy came during the recession, she said, and her intent was to “let the market guide the legislation.”
And the market seems headed in the direction of on-shore wind energy.
“I think you’ve seen a lot of success with on-shore,” she said. “For the most part, the communities that wanted to see wind farms or turbines opened their doors.”
Consumers Energy last year opened a 111-megawatt on-shore wind farm, Cross Winds Energy Park in Tuscola County.
“Offshore wind, just roughly speaking, is four times more expensive than other types of generation sources,” said David G. Mengebier, senior vice president of governmental and public affairs and chief compliance officer for Consumers Energy. There are several reasons for this. “One is, you have to bring the power on shore. … Two is, you, have to maintain all these wind turbines out in the middle of the lake.”
Other concerns are ice that would form on the turbines and avoiding the disturbance of shipwrecks, archaeological sites and migratory bird paths.
Birkholz said the last renewable energy portfolio law that she helped author in 2008 was a success, spawning “$2.2 billion in economic development in renewable energy.” Several West Michigan companies also now make parts used in wind turbines.
“Our megawatt-hour costs have gone down, not up,” she said. The renewable energy law she authored runs out at the end of 2015.
“Obviously, we need the renewable portfolio legislation,” she said. And whatever form that legislation takes in the hands of today’s lawmakers, she’s not ready to write off offshore wind energy just yet.
“I’m not sure that it died or is dead,” Birkholz said.
Advances in technology could change the offshore wind game.
Glosten Associates naval architect and marine engineer Charles Nordstrom spoke in Muskegon in 2013 about new turbine designs that could put turbines on floating platforms anchored by cables to the lake bottom. That technology could decrease the lake-depth restrictions that have governed offshore wind development in the past.
“This is not something that is just too expensive, and doesn’t work, messes up my view,” he said at that time. “The conversation needs to change. This is not going to happen tomorrow, but let’s keep talking about it.”
In Muskegon, Eric Justian hasn’t given up. The Facebook community he and his friends started years ago, “Yes to West Michigan Wind Power,” remains active.
Justian said that as on-shore wind energy grows in prevalence – and if energy costs grow – people will likely react much differently than they did five years ago to proposed offshore wind farms.
“All these things that we’ve gotten used to in our lives, wind farms are just going to become part of that landscape,” he said. “Time is on our side.”