As Michigan increasingly banks on wind power to drive the expansion of its renewable energy portfolio, wind farm projects are increasingly stirring up turbulence with the people next door to the turbines.
Most recently, neighbors of a 14-turbine wind farm in the Upper Peninsula community of Garden filed a lawsuit against the developer in U.S. District Court last month, alleging the project’s noise has harmed their quality of life and property values. In Huron County in Michigan’s Thumb – a focal point for state wind development – county officials are tearing up an “inadequate,” less than 10-year-old wind energy ordinance because, in the words of the county commissioners’ chairman, “people’s rights (are) being violated.”
The entire Garden Wind Farm by Heritage Sustainable Energy, on the Garden Peninsula in the U.P., is within 3 miles of Lake Michigan and about 20 of 50 wind turbines in the Apple Blossom project in the Thumb are proposed within the same proximity of Lake Huron. That’s despite recommendations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to avoid a 3-mile zone around the shoreline of the Great Lakes, because though it provides optimal winds for energy production, it also includes corridors for bird and bat movement – including federally protected, threatened and endangered species, and bald and golden eagles.
“Huron County has the highest density of wind development of any county in Michigan,” said Jeff Gosse, regional energy coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
“If developers are going to start building in that 3-mile buffer, one can expect there will be heavy development within that buffer – not one or two developments, but others following suit.”
As Michigan considers how and whether to extend and expand its renewable portfolio standard, requiring utilities to obtain 10% of their energy from renewable sources by this year, the state is relying heavily on wind to meet the requirements. In 2013, wind projects accounted for more than 90% of Michigan’s clean energy installations, according to a study released last fall by the Pew Charitable Trusts. The state’s wind energy capacity is expected to rise by about 75% over the next decade, the study projects.
Even a wind turbine developer recognizes that will lead to more conflicts with neighbors.
“I think we’re going to get push-back from people,” said Heritage CEO Martin Lagina.
Quality of life
Residents who formed the neighborhood group Garden Peninsula Foundation filed a federal lawsuit against Traverse City-based Heritage Sustainable Energy and the Fish and Wildlife Service last month, alleging Heritage’s Garden Wind Farm in the peninsula’s farmlands will kill protected and endangered species such as the Kirtland’s warbler, piping plover and the northern long-eared bat.
The turbines have also hurt the quality of life in the community, said Michelle Halley, an attorney representing wind farm neighbors.
“It impacts residents’ enjoyment of their own property – they’re losing sleep because of the turbines’ noise,” she said, adding property values will suffer with the wind farm’s presence.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service East Lansing office director Scott Hicks said his agency has “consistently recommended” throughout Michigan avoiding installing wind turbines in a 3-mile area around the Great Lakes, including “numerous recommendations” to Heritage.
That raised the ire of Heritage’s Lagina.
“The project is there because we built it where U.S. Fish and Wildlife said to build it,” he said. He cited a 2009 letter from the agency that called the location a “preferred site” and provided more specific information on where turbines should and shouldn’t go in the peninsula area.
“They absolutely, categorically flipped 180 degrees in 2011, and they would have bankrupted us if we had stopped at that point,” Lagina said.
Despite “dire predictions” of bird kills, two years of operating the turbines has shown few dead birds, he said, though exact numbers were not provided to the Free Press.
“We kill less birds than the average Midwestern wind farm that is supposedly properly sited,” he said. “The houses on the Garden Peninsula kill more, by impacts with windows. Anybody with a cat kills more.”
While acknowledging noise from turbines can be an issue, Lagina said it’s “subjective.”
“What you might consider noise is a lullaby to somebody else,” he said.
Similarly, while some like the sight of wind turbines, and the energy independence and sustainable power they represent, others are less enamored, Lagina said.
“There are people who absolutely hate wind turbines, and I believe the issues are all aesthetic,” he said. “If you decide you do not like wind turbines – it’s big, you can see it from far away. And some people do not like them in their backyard; there’s big NIMBY-ism going on.”
The U.S. Audubon Society lists the No.1 threat to birds as “human-induced climate change,” Lagina said. And shore birds such as the red knot and piping plover are most threatened by rising sea levels, he said.
“If they shut down that wind farm, we’re going to burn more coal – that’s a fact,” he said.
The neighbors’ lawsuit seeks an injunction against allowing construction of additional turbines, and other unspecified monetary damages.
Halley noted that wind developers, if concerned about taking endangered species, can apply for “take” permits that require a Fish and Wildlife Service analysis and examination of alternatives. Heritage did not seek such permits, she said.
“The bottom line is, these companies have a responsibility to their shareholders,” she said. “If they can locate their facilities in order to maximize profits, I think they are willing to take risks to do it. It’s easier to get forgiveness than permission.”
The Huron County Planning Commission has scheduled a March 4 hearing to consider a six-month moratorium on wind energy development in the county, allowing for a reworking of the county’s wind energy zoning ordinance.
“It’s inadequate,” said Huron County Board of Commissioners Chairman John Nugent of the existing ordinance, enacted in 2006.
“There were too many of them, too quick. It ended up with people’s rights being violated – setbacks were a problem with a lot of people, they were too close to their home. And they infringe on the shoreline, which is unacceptable.”
Huron County is part of the Thumb area designated Michigan’s “primary wind energy resource zone” through a 2008 state law. It was deemed by an appointed panel to have the best wind energy generating capacity. But Nugent said he thinks other factors were involved as well: the region is generally poorer, agrarian, sparsely populated and with little political clout.
“It was ripe for the taking,” he said. “You can’t pull this off in Traverse City.”
Since the designation, commercial-scale wind farm development has soared in the Thumb region – 15 of the state’s 22 wind farms are located there, more than 71% of the entire state’s wind generation.
“The attitude has changed with the developers,” Nugent said. “The early developments were hit-and-get, put as many turbines as they could. It was just a mess – poorly conceived, and enabled by a poorly structured ordinance.”
The zoning was missing provisions to create a buffer zone along the Lake Huron shoreline and known bird and bat flyways, Nugent said. Setbacks from turbines were also calculated measuring from a neighbor’s occupied dwellings, not their property line – which would then prevent a turbine’s neighbor from further developing their land between their home and the spinning blades.
“It’s a taking of their property,” Nugent said.
The old ordinance also contained noise provisions “so poorly crafted, you couldn’t understand it.”
But the proposed moratorium will not apply to two in-development but not yet constructed wind farms, including Geronimo’s Apple Blossom Wind Farm project, which calls for up to 20 turbines within 2 miles of Lake Huron.
“Our attorney says they were approved under the existing zoning ordinance,” Nugent said. “He felt it was unethical and maybe illegal to deny them the ability to continue. It’s not going down well with many people.”
That includes Monica Essenmacher, founder of Point Crest Hawk Watch, a nonprofit group based in Port Austin that counts hawks on their annual migration along Lake Huron.
“Birds will die – eagles, endangered species,” she said. “The science is in, the research that’s been done in Huron County proves conclusively that this is a nocturnal bird and bat migratory zone.”
Exempting the two wind farm projects from the upcoming moratorium “is wrong, if not illegal,” she said.
Requests for an interview with Geronimo were responded to with a statement from spokeswoman Lindsay Smith.
While Fish and Wildlife’s 3-mile Great Lakes buffer is “not mandatory, we are considering it as we continue to develop our Apple Blossom project,” she said.
Smith added that Geronimo has been using Fish and Wildlife guidelines in the development of its wind farm, including “extensive surveys for birds and bats” over the past four years. The company will seek input from Fish and Wildlife on its bird and bat conservation strategy, she said.
While Hicks agreed Geronimo officials have been in contact with Fish and Wildlife, “contact doesn’t necessarily mean they are agreeing to implement all of our recommendations,” he said.
Wind energy is one of the fastest-growing sources of impacts to wildlife, Gosse said.
“The Department of Energy has stated a goal to increase wind development five-fold over what we’ve got right now,” he said. “That’s part of our concern, not that a wind turbine is taking birds and bats, but when you build more and more and they face more and more unsafe areas to fly.”
Nugent said local governments like his have to take lessons from what’s happened and prepare for what’s coming.
“More consideration has to be given to those who are negatively impacted than has been in the past,” he said. “We have to respect all people, not just the wind developer and the landowner who’s making a profit off of it. Because everybody is impacted in one way or another.”