For the second time in a week, a renewable energy company has filed plans to construct a wind turbine project in Tuscola County – this time the $200 million Tuscola III Wind Energy Center in Almer, Ellington, and Fairgrove townships.
Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources L.L.C. planned to file applications for special use permits in Almer and Ellington townships Friday evening, after The Advertiser’s press time. The company expects to file in Fairgrove Township Monday.
Company officials said the project represents an investment of more than $200 million and will include 52 wind turbines (17 in Fairgrove, 19 in Almer, and 19 in Ellington). As The Advertiser reported Wednesday, Jackson-based Consumers Energy filed applications for special use permits for 52 wind turbines to make up the next two phases of Cross Winds Energy Park in Columbia Township on Sept. 16. That project is valued at about $250 million.
Together, the projects mean 104 new wind turbines with a value of nearly $450 million are planned for Tuscola County.
Bryan Garner, manager of communications, NextEra Energy, said company officials “are looking forward to building this project and being good partners with the people of Tuscola County.”
“This is a project we’re very proud of, one that will generate a lot of benefits for this community – jobs, economic stimulus for local businesses, millions of dollars for landowners, as well as property taxes that are going to benefit everyone in the community,” he said.
Garner said it was simply coincidence that NextEra filed its special use permit applications so close to when Consumers did in Columbia Township.
NextEra Energy already has two wind projects in Tuscola County – Tuscola Bay Wind and Tuscola Wind II Energy Park. The customer for the projects is DTE Electric Co. Garner said Tuscola III doesn’t have a customer yet.
Tuscola Bay Wind is located mostly in Gilford Township and has been in operation since 2012. Tuscola Wind II is located in Akron, Fairgrove, Gilford, and Juniata townships and was built in 2013.
Garner said the company expects construction on Tuscola III Wind Energy Center to begin next spring. For those who don’t live in the immediate vicinity, the first look at Tuscola III will likely be wind turbines rising between Caro and Cass City along M-81 (including five turbines south of M-81).
Construction will bring more than 200 jobs to the area. As many as 10 new full-time jobs could result through positions such as wind turbine technician.
The GE-brand wind turbines are expected to begin operating by 2018 and be capable of generating up to 125 megawatts.
“We’re also sensitive to the debate that has been happening in the last several months,” Garner said. “This permit reflects many of the concerns that were raised in these meetings about sound and setback restrictions.
Garner referred to what has become a drawn out process of getting to the point of filing the applications.
Company officials told The Advertiser in January that the plan was to file special land use permit applications for Tuscola III by the end of March and break ground by the end of 2016.
However, about the same time, a small group of local residents formed the Ellington-Almer Township Concerned Citizens (EATCC) and began growing, putting pressure on officials from Almer and Ellington townships to look closer at the ordinances in each respective community as they relate to wind turbines.
Ellington and Almer officials separately were reviewing their ordinances in light of NextEra Energy’s plans for Tuscola III.
For about nine months, EATCC supporters and detractors alike showed up en force at planning commission and board of trustees’ meetings in Almer and Ellington townships, often accusing elected and appointed public officials of not listening to them and of using a “fill-in-the-blank-type template” to draft wind law instead of taking into account the nuance of each respective community.
Some meetings lasted three hours. Some involved name-calling and tears.
NextEra Energy officials and wind energy supporters frequently accused EATCC members of being “a small vocal group” though many would run for elected positions and drum up enough votes to win August primary election and end up on the November ballot, effectively ousting many involved in developing original wind ordinances in Almer and Ellington.
Ellington ended up keeping the ordinance it adopted in 2015. Almer approved 10 changes to its ordinance on Aug. 31.
Garner says NextEra Energy officials and representatives paid close attention throughout the process.
“What you’ll see in this permit is one that takes those (discussions) into account, that adopts guidelines that are more stringent than what is required,” Garner said.
As an example, he pointed to an idea considered by the Ellington Township planning commission to have setback requirements equal to, or better than, Huron County sound and setback requirements.
“Which is exactly what we have done here,” Garner said. “We’ve been listening to the debates.”
Another example is that NextEra plans to seek FAA approval of “radar-controlled lighting” that would limit how wind turbines are lit at night – also an idea that has frequently been talked about throughout the meetings.
“We’re hopeful that this project application will be one that the community can rally behind and really help move forward this project that I think will be one that is very positive for the community,” Garner said.
Ryan Pumford, project manager, NextEra Energy Resources, attended many of the meetings and added that he believes the project is one “the vast majority of people are happy with and everyone can be proud of.”
Reaction Friday to the news that NextEra was in the process of filing for its permits was mixed.
Mike Hoagland, controller, Tuscola County, stuck with his assessment that wind turbines are “bittersweet” for the county in that they provide an infusion of tax money when new, but that the way they are assessed results in rapid depreciation in value – meaning a relatively rapid decline in the economic value to the area through lower taxes paid by wind companies.
“Purely from a financial standpoint it’s a plus, but that statement carries a caution flag,” Hoagland said. “It would be all too easy to build a level of dependency on that revenue source and not look to the future where we know…within 10 to 12 years the amount it’s assessed falls to 30 to 40 percent.”
Others said they were not surprised by the permit applications being filed, adding that they plan to continue pursuit of getting wind ordinances in place that they feel are more conducive to promoting the health, safety and welfare of the community as a whole.
In Almer Township, Norm Stephens, township resident and member of the EATCC, is leading a group collecting signatures for a petition that calls for referendum on the wind ordinance changes approved by the board Aug. 31, meaning voters in the township would have final say.
“I understand (NextEra Energy) is going to do whatever they need to do to get this thing going,” Stephens said. “We’ll have to refer whatever they do like that to our attorney and we’ll do whatever he suggests we do.”
In Ellington Township, Mike Patullo, township resident and member of the EATCC, said the group is preparing to act on a “conflict of interest” lawsuit with regard to that township’s ordinance. He and others have consistently said Ellington’s wind ordinance should be null-and-void because Ellington Township Supervisor Duane Lockwood was involved in its development. Lockwood has leased parts of land he owns to NextEra Energy for the project.
“If the Ellington Township planning commission grants permits, we’ll file a lawsuit,” Patullo said. “We’ll fight anything that try to do with that ordinance.”