Consumers Energy, one of Michigan’s two big regional utility monopolies, suggests in a recent report that it may focus its efforts outside the state when it comes to building more wind power developments, in part due to public opposition in the Michigan Thumb region.
The idea is expressed in a June 15 planning document the the company filed with the Michigan Public Service Commission. The document also laid out the company’s plan to expand solar-powered generation capacity by 5,000 megawatts through the end of the next decade.
In its report to state regulators, the electricity and natural gas company said it believe that opposition to wind farm developments in Huron County, and poor wind speeds in counties west of the Thumb region, mean that “wind built in Michigan may not be cost-effective or a feasible option.”
The company filed its report 10 days before it announced two new wind farms in Gratiot County, Michigan, and Northwest Ohio.
Sara Walz, a lead engineering manager with Consumers Energy, said, in a testimony before the regulatory commission, that the company is looking to build more wind turbines in states west of Michigan, possibly including Iowa. She added, though, that doing so would not help the company comply with the 15 percent renewable energy portfolio standard required by Michigan law.
Even so, Walz said the company was still interested in expanding into Iowa.
“While additional expansion of wind construction in Michigan is severely challenged at this time, wind development in Iowa continues,” Walz told members of the commission.
While Michigan’s utilities and industrial-scale wind developers, such as NextEra Energy Resources, have built large wind farms in the state’s Thumb region, recent pushback from residents in Huron, Tuscola and Bay counties have made the task of building new farms more difficult.
Local government opposition to wind development has grown stronger in the Thumb, which has the best wind resources in the state.
Consumers Energy said it plans to build or lease 550 megawatts of wind capacity by 2021, a goal that would require building more than 200 new wind turbines. It expects the new wind farm in Gratiot County to account for up to 150 of the 550 megawatts of new wind capacity.
Jim MacInnes, chairman of the Utility Consumer Participation Board, said he believes utility’s approach to wind and solar projects is right. The Utility Consumer Participation Board distributes money to environmental and other advocacy groups that act as consumer advocates in certain matters before the MPSC according to MacInnes.
“Michigan has good wind resources which, if developed, could offer low electricity prices, Michigan jobs and increased property tax benefits for our schools. Unfortunately, however, many Michigan residents do not support their further development. This is in part why our state has the highest electricity rates in the Midwest according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration,” MacInnes said in an email.
Kevon Martis of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition, who has helped local groups opposing wind farm developments in communities throughout Michigan and Ohio, said he is pleased the company is looking to build wind out of state.
“Our biggest objections to wind development in the state of Michigan is it makes grossly unreasonable demands upon local land use policy. The only way wind development ever occurs in the state of Michigan is when the wind company uses the fiat power of land use policy to grant to the wind company uncompensated and free nuisance easement at the expense of the neighboring small parcel landowner,” Martis said in a phone interview.
Martis continued: “We’re pleased that the opposition to such unjust land policy has risen to the point that Consumers is recognizing that further wind development isn’t going to be economically justifiable in the state of Michigan from this point forward.”
The Electricity Markets and Policy Group, a project of the federally supported Berkeley Lab, has calculated the wind capacity of various regions of the country. According to its data, Iowa’s capacity, at 35.2 percent, was greater than Michigan’s, at 34.8 percent. The capacity factor is calculated by dividing the amount of electricity produced by a particular type of electricity-generating plant by the maximum amount of electricity that technology could theoretically generate within a certain period of time. A higher number for a state or region means that wind energy is more efficiently produced there.
It important to note that the average state figures above are calculated using data on existing wind farms. Most of Michigan’s wind farms are in the Thumb region, while Iowa’s wind farms are more spread out.
While the resource plan suggests that Consumers Energy may be investigating wind energy production outside of Michigan, it also lays out plans by the utility to build or lease 5,000 megawatts of utility-scale solar generation capacity throughout the 2020s. This could encompass tens of thousands of acres of solar panel installations spread throughout the state.
Editor’s note: Jim MacInnes’ description of the Utility Consumer Participation Board was added to the article.