Jackson-based Consumers Energy expects to break ground next spring on phase two of its Cross Winds Energy Park – part of a new $250 million investment that will bring 52 new wind turbines to Tuscola County.
Officials representing Consumers Energy, a subsidiary of CMS Energy (NYSE: CMS), applied for a special land use permit Friday for Cross Winds Phase II and Cross Winds Phase III, both in Columbia Township.
Phase II plans call for 19 GE wind turbines while Phase III plans are for 33 wind turbines. All of the turbines are in Columbia Township.
The first phase of Cross Winds – already in operation – includes 62 turbines in Columbia and Akron townships.
The two phases represent an investment of about $250 million, said Steven Schneider, project manager, Consumers, and will lead to 150 construction jobs.
Schneider said Cross Winds always has been a multi-phase project, but it’s been accelerated due to factors such as dropping costs of technology related to renewable energy, and increased customer demand (including private customers).
Another factor could be increased requirements utility companies face with regard to renewable energy.
“Energy policy is in play in Lansing,” said Dan Bishop, director of media relations, Consumers Energy. “Utilities had a 10 percent requirement and we’ve hit that…there is a view that may be increased.”
Further, changes to tax credits have played a role in speeding up the next phases of Cross Winds.
The Renewable Electricity Production Tax Credit (PTC) begins phase-out at the end of 2016 and is reduced by about 20 percent annually in subsequent years.
“What the product tax credits means for our projects – phases two and three – is roughly about $100 million in federal tax credit that we can apply to offset the cost of the project,” Schneider told The Advertiser. “So that’s really why we’re looking at filing our special land use permit and starting construction in 2016.”
Schneider said per IRS guidelines, “construction” can mean the traditional sense of the word or paying 5 percent of the total capital expenditure, also called “capex,” up front in 2016.
“We prefer to do the latter so we’re going to be paying 5 percent of the capex up front to our original equipment manufacturer…in order to secure turbines and so that we can proceed and move forward under the 100 percent PTC option that’s out there,” Schneider said.
Columbia Township is on the northwest boarder of Tuscola County and “blessed with nearly 24,000 acres (38 square miles) of prime agricultural land,” the township’s website states.
The township includes the village of Unionville and has a population of about 1,400.
The existing Cross Winds Energy Park is a 111-megawatt wind turbine project that consists of 62 wind turbines – 43 in Akron Township and 19 in Columbia Township. The project is owned by Consumers and began operating in 2014. The company said the first phase of Cross Winds costs about $250 million.
According to a website specific to Cross Winds, “After carefully studying 19 potential sites in Michigan, Consumers Energy chose Tuscola County due to the wind resource and because the area offers access to available transmission – a key consideration when building a wind farm. The Tuscola County townships where Consumers Energy built Cross Winds also offer wind ordinances that ensure public safety while providing the flexibility to develop and operate a highly productive wind farm.”
The next phases of Cross Winds will use turbines that are different from the first phase.
“What we see in wind development is that turbine technology changes quite rapidly,” Schneider said. “With that change comes advancements in which we can capture wind at a lower cost.”
The new turbines will stand 499 feet tall compared with 492 feet of the existing structures in Cross Winds I.
“Where you would really see…the difference is in the length of the blade itself,” Schneider said.
The overall diameter of blades on the turbines in the first phase of Cross Winds is 328 feet whereas the new turbines will have a diameter of 380 feet. The difference is due to bigger blades: existing turbines have blades that are about 159 feet and the new ones will have blades that are about 186 feet.
Due to each turbine location and existing conditions, Schneider said, it’s too difficult to say if the turbines will be any more loud than the turbines in phase one of Cross Winds.
All of the new turbines will connect via about 300,000 linear feet of underground wire to be routed to Cross Winds’ existing substation on Hoppe Road in Akron.
Consumers holds land easement agreements with landowners wherever their lines will be located, said Dennis Marvin, community engagement manager, Consumers. The company started acquiring land rights for the project in 2009, Schneider said.
As part of the application process, Consumers has had to submit studies and processes with regard to: environmental and wildlife; electromagnetic interference; visual impact; decommissioning; and complaint resolution (the company said it has received two formal complaints regarding phase one).
As The Advertiser reported Aug. 10, the company also had to apply for clearance from the FAA on the project. That hasn’t happened yet, but Schneider said he expects approval to be forthcoming.
Consumers also filed a study on shadow flicker that uses new technology to model what it could look like at specific areas.
Schneider said the company goes “above and beyond” Columbia Township ordinance with regard to setbacks.
For example, Columbia’s requirement from inhabited structure is a minimum of 1,000 feet – all of the Cross Winds turbines are greater than 1,270 feet. The minimum setback from non-participating properties is a minimum of 500 feet – Cross Winds turbines are greater than 750 feet.
Further, the ordinance calls for a minimum setback of 500 feed from public roads and Cross Winds turbines are greater than 730 feet.
“It’s very important that we’re on the leading edge as it relates to these issues to ensure public safety, health, and welfare, but also get in front of potential questions or concerns that might come up from the local residents,” Schneider said.
Consumers is expanding the wind farm in two phases due to an existing generator interconnection agreement with Midcontinent Independent System Operation Inc. (MISO) that allows for transmission across lines of up to 155 megawatts of power generated via wind energy at Cross Winds.
The first phase of Cross Winds generates 111 megawatts, and the 19 wind turbines that are part of phase two will generate 44 megawatts – putting Cross Winds at its max limit.
Applying for more capacity is a lengthy process that could take as much as two years, Schneider said.
Given the MISO limits, Consumers expects construction to begin on phase two of Cross Winds around the beginning of second quarter, 2017, with operations to launch Dec. 12, 2017.
Consumers is projecting construction to begin on phase three of Cross Winds in early 2019 with operations to launch before 2020.
The Advertiser attempted to reach all five members of the Columbia Township Board of Trustees.
Ed Spannagel, supervisor, Columbia Township – who also serves as liaison to the township planning commission – could not be reached by press time.
Records at the Tuscola County Register of Deeds show that Spannagel has been dealing with wind companies since at least 2009. He is not seeking re-election in November.
County records show that five other elected or appointed township officials have had wind-related deals – Clerk Christine Kolar, Trustee Mike Findlay and planning commissioners Tom Zimmer, Robert Becker and David Sting.
Kolar could not be reached by press time.
When asked what the next steps regarding Cross Winds’ new application were Findlay said, “I got no comment.”
Marvin said Consumers plans to hold an open house on the project at the American Legion in Unionville on Oct. 12.
Marvin said that will likely be two to three weeks before a public hearing on the project.
The company also will have its Caro office open so anyone can stop in and talk about the project during the Tuscola County Pumpkin Festival in early October.
The website for Cross Winds Energy Park (phase one) can be found at http://bit.ly/2csiiHB
A “behind the scenes” video of construction of Cross Winds Energy Park (phase one) can be viewed at https://youtu.be/qHAYRGgg558