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Gratiot County wind farm development shows potential for Montcalm County

For those on the eastern edge of Montcalm County, traveling to and fro across the county line, a new series of looming, towering objects now await them, dotted across the horizon.

Those towers – located in Gratiot County’s North Shade and New Haven townships – will soon number 60 in total, with enormous blades spinning at their top, all while producing energy spread out over 24,000 acres of farmland.

Not 100 yards beyond E. County Line Road – the dividing line of the two counties – one such wind turbine under construction sits within throwing distance of Montcalm County, soon to be finished and spinning with the wind on a daily basis.

The Gratiot Farms Wind Project, being completed by Consumers Energy after acquiring it from Enel Green Power North America, is expected to be operational by December, generating 150 megawatts of wind energy following $260 million in investment to build the wind farm.

Enel Green is one of the largest developers, owners and operators of renewable energy in the United States. The new project joins the Gratiot County Wind Project, which was completed in 2012, and at 213 MW of production, serves as one of the largest wind farms in Michigan as Gratiot County now has more than 400 wind turbines within its boundaries.

With more than 1,200 turbines installed in the state, producing more than 2,357 MW in energy, Michigan now ranks 12th in the country for installed wind capacity.

Per the American Wind Energy Association, in 2019, local communities received $47 million in tax revenues as a result of wind energy produced in Michigan. According to Greater Gratiot Development Inc., between 2012 and 2018, that county alone received nearly $43 million in tax revenue from its wind parks.

With wind farms located just outside the boundaries of Montcalm County, Keith den Hollander, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Michigan, painted a picture of lost opportunity during the quarterly meeting of the Montcalm Economic Alliance (MEA) on July 8.

“How much of that revenue came to Montcalm County? None,” he said. “There’s currently no wind projects in Montcalm. So this is a chance to get in on some of that action, to get a piece of that pie. These are fairly good-sized projects that could develop some serious revenue for the communities.”

Hollander believes wind energy has unfortunately become too partisan an issue in the public eye.

“For a long time wind energy was pegged as an environmental issue only, but when renewable energy got tied to climate change, it suddenly became Al Gore’s policy issue,” he said. “If you look back prior to that time, renewable energy was considered based on its economic merits, based on national security merits and its price point. It eventually became a partisan issue and a lot of people lost sight of all other discussions taking place around renewable energy.”

Hollander is hopeful rural areas such as Montcalm County can put such partisan beliefs aside and potentially open the door for local wind turbine farms.

Wind energy has continued to increase in Michigan following legislation signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2016. According to Hollander, that legislation provided a drastic overhaul of the state’s energy policies, but not by way of a mandate.

“He wanted it with guidelines and recommendations, so he created a goal – 40% renewable energy and energy efficiency combined,” he said.

Hollander said the legislation didn’t force companies to seek alternative energy solutions unless it could prove to be a cost benefit.

“If it’s causing energy to be more expensive, if it’s not economically viable to do it, then companies shouldn’t do it. We don’t want to drive business out of our state,” he said.

However, Hollander said such concerns haven’t been an issue, as wind and solar energy farms have thus far proven to be good investments. And now companies such as Consumers Energy are installing wind farms while dismantling and decommissioning coal and nuclear power plants.

“Almost every aspect of our life is impacted by our energy policy and our use of it. If you flip off your main breaker to your house for an hour, you’ll remember quickly how important it is,” he said.

With such dependability on energy, Hollander said both wind and solar farms offer customers to lock in at set rates that can last for 20-30 years, depending on the agreement. With resources such as oil and coal, such rate agreements are non-existent.

“If natural gas would lock you in for 30 years, most of us would probably jump all over that because the cost of living goes up. So renewable energy, the cost is in building the project, not necessarily operating it,” Hollander said. “The wind is free, the sun is free, there’s just maintenance costs and things like that, that have to be considered.”

Hollander said natural gas is affordable and reliable at the moment because it is not globally traded; however, that is expected to change in the future.

“We’re increasing and moving our energy to natural gas, which is cleaner and cheaper than coal. It made a lot of sense, as natural gas is not globally priced today,” he said. “Why is our natural gas so much cheaper than other countries? We have a ton of it and no way to export it. President Barack Obama, in his last year, allowed for exports of it now. Once we have the infrastructure, it will become globally traded and dictated by the market.

When it comes to wind and solar, Hollander said such price fluctuations will never be an issue.

“The price of wind and solar are not controlled by global markets, and a lot of parts are made here in the United States, in Michigan,” he said.

Additionally, Hollander said solar and wind farms directly benefit the property owners upon which the farms are located – which tend to be rural farmers, many of whom are struggling financially.

“What we really like about wind, it’s not just one property owner who leases their land or one township who is getting a tax base increase – you’ve got dozens, hundreds of land owners who are getting monthly or yearly payments for their part in playing a role in hosting a turbine,” he said. “That extra money trickles right back into the communities. Those extra dollars can make all the difference for a farmer who is just trying to stay in business.”

As an example, the Gratiot County Wind Project supports the local economy through yearly lease payments to more than 240 landowners, helping to preserve farmland for future generations.

Speaking in support of wind farms potentially making their way to Montcalm County, MEA President Rob Spohr said he believes such projects would provide a much-needed economic boost locally.

“This really isn’t a political issue, it shouldn’t be a political issue. This organization, at least the executive team, believes that having these different types of energy for our area are a good thing,” Spohr said. “We’re trying to get as much information out there— true information – because it’s no secret that in counties around us, a lot of these turbines have gone up, and are going up as we speak. There’s been some talk about something happening in our area, so we want to start bringing in information to educate people so that when discussions start, they are educated discussions. It doesn’t matter if you are pro or con, it’s just very important that we deal with facts.”