MACOMB – Huron County, Michigan’s unofficial wind energy capital with 328 turbines and plans for 150 more, took center stage Thursday at a Macomb Community College roundtable event.
Brion Dickens, Oliver Township planning commission chair, joined a panel with Larry Ward, director of Michigan Conservative Energy Forum; Scott Viciana, vice president of Ventower, a Monroe-based wind turbine fabricator and supplier; and Ken Weller, operations manager at EDF Renewables.
Panelists spoke to five students in the college’s renewables program in an event at the John Lewis Center sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association, the industry’s national trade association.
The discussion focused on furthering investments in wind energy by supplanting a 2008 mandate for utilities to generate 10 percent of electricity from renewables by 2015 with new policies. Speakers boasted of a $2.9 billion investment in wind energy in Michigan, which has generated 4 percent of the state’s energy and 4,000 jobs while doling out $4.6 million in lease payments for landowners with turbines.
When it came to Dickens, he told students he lives in the middle of five wind projects.
“In my area, yeah, we’ve got 400 turbines and we’ll be over 500 easily just by next year,” he said. “Ten years ago, we had nothing here in Michigan, and that’s kind of sad. It took some political might to get us to where we are now.”
He then told of local developments.
“Next week, I’m going to be going through the zoning for what could be the last wind project for a while in Michigan, and that is the (DTE Energy) Pinnebog project,” he said. “We’ve given them conditional approval right now, so they’re set to build. But we’re starting to get some controversy from people who didn’t expect the project.”
Chandler, Oliver and Colfax township leaders have welcomed the 30 turbines DTE wants to build. The developer initially had its sights on Meade Township, but residents voted against the project in a May referendum.
A student in the college’s renewables program asked Dickens to elaborate on the “controversy.”
“I know we have a reporter in the room from the Tribune in Huron County who’s witnessed all of this take place in Huron County,” Dickens began, then paused. “There’s a national push against renewables, wind in particular. It’s funded by the people who don’t like renewable energy because they have their own energy. And that’s what I’m seeing in Michigan.”
Dickens continued, citing a project in Lenawee County that created a “well organized, anti-wind chapter of this national organization – that will remain nameless.”
“Last year, they were in Meade Township,” he said. “They were successful in fighting a development there. In their eyes, they were successful. That development has now moved into my township.”
“I don’t want to call it a cancer or a fungus, but it grows,” he said of the organization. “They’re terrified of change.”
Counting the Apple Blossom wind project in western Huron County and an expansion of Big Turtle Wind Farm in Rubicon Township, Dickens said he didn’t know of any others in the pipeline for Michigan.
Alluding to Geronimo Energy’s 30 turbines planned in western Huron County, Dickens cited the re-engineering the developer did, which reduced total turbines from about 50 to 30. Consequently, Geronimo told county officials of a switch to larger turbines.
“They’re going to be putting in the largest turbines, I believe, east of the Mississippi,” Dickens said. “That technology was unheard of a decade ago.”
Dickens also is a teacher at Baker College. A former wind developer, he says he looks at wind energy as a “covert way to teach science … fooling (students)” into learning “high science.”
As for state energy policies, they could be changing for the worst, according to Dickens, “and it’s based on people that really have no knowledge.”
“We’ve got to convince them,” said Ken Weller, operations manager at EDF Renewables, supporting “beefing up” the expiring 2008 mandate.
“Those of us that can write our state senators and state representatives and let them know hey, this wind thing you’ve got out there, this renewable package you’re working on, get it done.”
Other panelists said they wanted to inform and educate the Legislature of wind energy benefits.
“It’s creating jobs; it’s working,” Ventower Vice President Scott Viciana said.
Viciana told students ideal hires are those with two-year welding certificates or degrees.
Other stats released today by the American Wind Energy Association, if Michigan follows the Department of Energy’s 2015 “Wind Vision” report, which states wind energy could supply nearly 7 percent of the state’s electricity by 2030:
• $11.6 million: Amount in annual property tax revenue by 2020
• $7.6 million: Total annual payments to landowners by 2030
$3.6 billion: Electricity bill savings for Michigan consumers through 2050