SAGINAW, MI – The flat lands and rolling hills of rural Mid-Michigan and the Thumb have sprouted spikey exclamation points in a race for renewable, clean energy.
Giant, white turbines dot otherwise pastoral landscapes.
For some, these massive structures represent a critical step toward a clean-energy future. For landowners who agree to host turbines on their property, each one is a paycheck.
But for others, the wind farms developing next door are cause for concern.
In some communities, people have banded together, attending meetings and collecting signatures. Township officials in at least a few parts of Tuscola County have placed moratoriums on the developments. In May, voters in some Michigan communities rejected proposals that would have allowed wind farms.
Noise and the so-called “flicker effect” created by wind turbines, proximity to neighboring property lines and nearby houses, the potential effect on property values, aesthetics, physical safety and potential conflicts of interest by local government officials approving the developments are among the concerns raised by opponents. Some say township boards are ill-equipped to write ordinances that adequately protect residents and property owners when wind farms come to town.
“The big issue is how far back do they put the wind turbines away from homes or property lines and how much noise do they allow to come off of them?” said Mike Pattullo of the Ellington-Almer Township Concerned Citizens group and a landowner in Ellington Township since the 1980s.
“Wind turbines give off a very, very low-frequency, high-pressure sound wave that travels for miles and miles and miles and will go right through the walls of a house like it’s not even there. It’s difficult to hear for most people,” he said.
“Matter of fact, it’s such a low frequency that most people can’t hear it, but a lot of people can feel it. Kind of like somebody’s got their bass in their car a mile away.”
While some people claim to suffer adverse health effects as a result of living near wind turbines, sometimes characterized as “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” the wind energy industry disputes the charge.
The American Wind Energy Association, a national trade association representing the interests of the wind energy industry, addresses the topic of wind energy and human health on its website.
“Wind energy enjoys considerable public support, but wind energy detractors have publicized their concerns that the sounds emitted from wind turbines cause adverse health effects. These allegations of health-related impacts are not supported by science,” according to the association.
“The credible peer-reviewed scientific data and various government reports in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom refute the claim that wind farms cause negative health impacts.”
Pattullo, an engineer by trade who has 30 acres in Ellington Township, said he and other members of the concerned citizens group have been wrongly accused of being “anti-wind.”
“We have been anti-weak ordinance and anti-conflict of interest,” he said. “We’re not opposed to wind turbines. We’re opposed to putting them too close to homes and encroaching (on) our property rights.”
For property owners who agree to host turbines on their land, there’s money to be had. A single turbine can mean, on average, a paycheck of $10,000 to $14,000 annually, according to Ryan Pumford, project director, U.S. wind development, with NextEra Energy Resources. Having a few turbines on one’s property could potentially pay just as much as or more than the per capita income in some Mid-Michigan counties. But the neighbors might not be happy about it.
“It has ripped our township apart,” Pattullo said.
The same thing was said about a proposed $250 million wind farm project in Bay County’s Merritt Township in 2011.
“It’s neighbor against neighbor, some family against family,” Merritt Township Supervisor Dave Schabel told MLive/The Bay City Times at the time. “It’s going to alter our landscape here, so we better make sure we do the right thing.”
Richard Russell was at the time and still is chairman of the Merritt Township Planning Commission. He said many township residents who opposed NextEra Energy Resources’ proposed plans came to public meetings to voice concerns, namely the effect wind turbines might have on their safety, health and well being. There were other concerns, too, such as what happens when the turbines stop working. And who’s responsible for taking them down?
“Of course, there were several people that were in favor of them – basically the people that were going to get them on their property to make the money,” Russell recalled.
In the end, the planning commission decided not to allow the development because so many residents opposed it.
“If somebody perceives there’s a problem, it is a problem. You have to deal with it – either convince them that it’s not a problem or correct the problem they perceive is there,” Russell said. “And once people believe it’s a problem, it’s pretty hard to convince them it’s not.”
Tuscola County’s Almer Township is one of the townships that late last year placed a one-year moratorium on wind farms. There aren’t currently any turbines in the township, located just north of Caro and about 35 miles northwest of Saginaw.
Officials in nearby Ellington and Elmwood townships also placed moratoriums on wind farms.
Jim Mantey is the Almer Township supervisor.
“We’re going to take a pause here and study this a little bit more,” he said of the moratorium.
“When Nextera came in, the previous planning commission was in the process of amending the ordinance to accommodate a greater number of turbines and that’s really what caused the push-back and the concern from the Almer-Ellington concerned citizens group.”
Then the November 2016 election happened and most of the planning commission members were unseated, he said.
Also last fall, the citizens group filed enough signatures and the paperwork to put the new amended ordinance to a referendum vote in May. Almer Township residents on May 2 voted down the zoning ordinance referendum pertaining to wind farms with 287 “no” votes, or 55.09 percent, and 234 “yes” votes, or 44.91 percent.
“The citizens took it into their hands and said, ‘We’re going to vote on this ourselves because we don’t like the amended ordinance,'” Mantey explained prior to the May 2 vote.
Mantey said the amended ordinance would have allowed more turbines, closer to homes. That concerned some people in part because of the “infrasound” they create.
“(It would be) similar to putting someone on a 30-year cruise they couldn’t get off, if they were susceptible to being seasick,” he said.
The trouble is some people say they hear or feel the sound while others don’t.
“There were a number of people that were real frustrated because, ‘Well, gosh, they don’t make that much noise,'” Mantey said.
Juno Beach, Florida-based NextEra already has three wind farms operating in Michigan, two of which are in Tuscola County, where Almer Township is located, and one in Huron County. DTE Energy Co. purchases the power. NextEra’s proposed Tuscola Wind III project would be located in Almer, Ellington and Fairgrove townships.
In February, Tuscola Wind III LLC, a subsidiary of NextEra, filed a federal lawsuit against the Almer Township Board of Trustees. It seeks a court order that would force the township to allow its proposed project to move forward.
“We filed our project application that met or exceeded all the terms of the local land ordinance and then when the new board was elected they immediately denied the permit and moved to enact a wind moratorium and to change the rules of the wind ordinance that was already in place,” said Bryan Garner, manager of communications for NextEra Energy Resources.
“This lawsuit is challenging the way our project was reviewed and we’re asking for a judge to overturn that decision.”
Mantey said the township hired Spicer Group to review NextEra’s application for a special land use permit. The planning commission and the township board then voted to turn it down after determining it didn’t conform to the ordinance, he said.
“We feel, as a township, that we have worked pretty hard to be fair and honest about the ordinance,” Mantey said.
Garner said NextEra’s proposed project would bring “good jobs, much-needed tax revenue and an economic boost” to Almer Township and the surrounding area.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. wind energy industry drives economic development in all 50 states, particularly in rural areas in need of investment, and currently supports more than 100,000 jobs across the country.
Then there are the environmental benefits.
Terry Miller is a founding member and chairman of the Lone Tree Council environmental group and wind energy proponent. He says climate change is a “huge environmental issue that needs to be addressed,” and wind energy is one solution.
“We are very, very supportive of wind farms,” Miller said. “We realize that there are some folks that aren’t benefiting from them directly and some that are disturbed by the noise. We would like to mitigate, as much as possible, those kinds of concerns, but the alternatives (to wind energy) are far worse, from our perspective.”
Miller said Michigan needs more wind farms, not fewer.
“We just recognize the absolute importance of moving away from fossil fuels and wind represents one of the best opportunities to do that.”
Mantey said the topic of wind farm development has become so polarizing it “can create a division amongst people that have otherwise been friends for years.”
“None of the people from the developing company that come in with this issue live here,” he said. “And it becomes so contentious that neighbor and friend relationships that have been solid for decades can, at the very least, be bruised … and then they leave town and they’re gone.”