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Wind turbines could be headed to county

BURLINGTON TWP. – Property owners in northeast Lapeer County signed 20 agreements with DTE Energy since late June that are specific to “wind energy development,” and the Detroit-based utility confirmed Friday that wind turbines could be on the way to the area as soon as 2022.

The 20 easement agreements encompass a total of 60 parcels in Burlington, Burnside and North Branch townships.

The majority of the 40-year agreements (with an option for an addition 20 years) are for land generally between the villages of Clifford and North Branch, though some are east and southeast of the village of North Branch.

The agreements were recorded by the Lapeer County Register of Deeds between July 7 and Sept. 26. The first was signed June 26.

Each provides DTE exclusive easement access to conduct studies, make plans, and construct “wind energy devices” that include, but are not limited to, “towers equipped with wind turbine units, collection lines, electrical transmission lines, interconnection facilities and support buildings” and more.

Such agreements have been identified specifically in past DTE press releases as key to clearing the way for other multi-million dollar DTE wind energy projects around the state.

Cynthia Hecht, spokesman for DTE Energy, told The County Press that DTE is in “the very early stages of talking to area landowners about a possible project at some point five to 10 years from now.”

She added it is “too early to provide specific information regarding size, scope, cost, etc.” and provided an official statement:

“As part of DTE Energy’s commitment to provide our customers with reliable and affordable energy while reducing carbon emissions, the company continually evaluates sites for future wind development throughout the state of Michigan.

“We are beginning discussions with landowners and the community in Lapeer County to determine if there is sufficient interest for a future wind project that would bring investment, tax revenue and clean energy to the area. We are exploring interest in this area because the wind resource is sufficient to consider a viable project, and the area’s agricultural character would be compatible.”

DTE already is heavily invested in Lapeer County through its solar array fields in Lapeer that are the utility’s largest solar project in Michigan, and one of the largest in the United States east of the Mississippi River.

The estimated $100-million investment by DTE Energy resulted in the installation of 200,000 solar panels across 250 acres capable of generating enough clean, alternative energy to power 11,000 homes and business in the greater Lapeer area.

Just last week, DTE Energy Regional Manager Carla Gribbs addressed the Lapeer City Commission to thank city officials for their cooperation and “partnership” to develop two solar array fields in the city that went online in May.

Gribbs noted that the Lapeer solar project is significant to the DTE’s plans to reduce carbon emissions by 85 percent by 2050. The company has announced plans to stop burning coal to power its electricity generating plants, and instead use natural gas and increase production of solar and other alternatives.

Such alternatives also include wind turbines that can be up to 499 feet tall – high enough to effectively capture enough of the wind’s energy (converted to power) to make it an economically viable option for electric providers like DTE that also face pressure to produce 15 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2021, per state law.

Currently, there are between 600 and 700 wind turbines in Michigan’s thumb region with about 900 total in the state (not all are DTE’s).

On its website, DTE says “Wind development can require up to five years for siting, zoning, feasibility and environmental studies, permits and construction. The exact timeframe required to complete a wind project is dictated by site and project specifics.”

“The size of a wind park depends on the area of land available, additional electrical demand required and available electrical system capacity,” DTE’s website continues.

“Once complete, turbines and their service roads require only 3 to 5 percent of the total land in the wind park. The vast majority of the land remains available for other uses, such as farming or grazing.”

The company further outlines the 12 steps of bringing a wind turbine project – oftentimes called a “wind farm” – into operations.

The first step is “acquiring easements” as the company has been doing since June 26 in northern Lapeer County.

The process also includes seeking community feedback in various public meetings, conducting studies, such as potential impact on wildlife, and installing meteorological (aka “met”) towers to gather weather data (wind speed, direction, temperature).

The company also said it reviews local zoning and permitting requirements and works with multiple local agencies like planning commissions and road and drain commissions.

Charles Oberle, supervisor of Burlington Township, did not return a message left Thursday by The County Press.

No one answered at a phone number obtained for Lynn Hoffman, supervisor, North Branch Township. There wasn’t an option to leave a message.

Gary Roy, chairman of the Lapeer County Board of Commissioners and representative of the district that includes all three townships, said he believes the municipalities “are all working on ordinances pertaining to wind and solar.”

Chad Dempsey, supervisor of Burnside Township, said the township’s planning commission has spent the last several months revamping its ordinance related to wind energy. The process included a public hearing in September with the updated ordinance to be presented to the township board for review at its regular Oct. 23 meeting at 7 p.m.

Dempsey said the ordinance needed to be revisited because it was last updated years ago when wind turbines did not go as high into the airspace as they do now, thus were not a viable option for northern Lapeer County.

Dempsey said the community has had a mixed reaction to the idea of wind turbines coming to town.

“It’s almost 50/50,” Dempsey said. “It depends if you own a lot of property or not.”

“I guess the biggest concern is the noise, and the transmission line because it sounds like they can put the transmission line anywhere they want.”

The process of building a wind farm doesn’t always go smoothly.

In Tuscola County, Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources has been working since at least 2014 to bring its Tuscola III Wind Energy Center – a project with a price tag of more than $200 million – online in Fairgrove, Almer, and Ellington townships, near the county seat of Caro.

The project has been the subject of contentious planning commission and township board meetings involving property owners who want to use their land as they see fit, neighbors potentially affected by the wind turbines, and public officials trying to craft local ordinances that prioritize overall public health, safety, and welfare.

The proposed project also has led to lawsuits filed by NextEra against Almer and Ellington township officials.

If contentious wind energy projects don’t end up in court, they also can wind up on a ballot.

Residents in several thumb communities have forced referendum elections on proposed projects that ultimately have brought some planned projects to a halt.

Those throughout Michigan’s Thumb region offered advice for officials and residents of Lapeer County, where the various aspects and considerations related to wind energy will be relatively new for many.

Norm Stephens, a resident of Almer Township, has studied everything from how they are built to how they operate, and how they are taken down (a process called “decommissioning”).

Stephens, a retired high school teacher, said he never expected to become so knowledgeable about wind turbines.

Now, however, he travels throughout Michigan, attending public meetings and urging those involved to not rush into such projects.

“An informed wind energy populous is wind energy’s worst nightmare,” Stephens said. “Because it’s true. You have to be educated. If you go to a wind turbine and stand there for two or three hours, that really tells you nothing.

“It’s like seasickness – some people are affected, most people are not. But you don’t say the people that suffer from seasickness are just making it up,” Stephen said.

Jim Tussey, a member of the Almer Township Board of Trustees, also urged local officials to learn as much as they can, as well as listen to community members.

Tussey noted the importance of getting facts from those other than companies trying to develop wind projects, seeking out sound experts (acousticians) that have experience with turbines, and to not focus just on noise as there are many other factors to consider, such as setbacks (how far wind turbines are placed from property lines and other structures/ houses) and shadow flicker (the strobe lightlike effect caused by blades cutting through the sun’s rays at certain times of the day).

“Be prepared to spend time and money,” Tussey told The County Press. “Applicants are billion-dollar companies. Townships have to up their game or be overridden by lawsuits.”