Montcalm County residents may have seen a handful of skinny poles with orangish-red balls on them placed at a few locations throughout the county.
Four meteorological evaluation towers (MET towers, for short) have been erected with three more planned.
While the towers were placed by Virginia-based Apex Clean Energy on private property with the landowner’s permission, the towers don’t indicate where future wind turbines may be placed – they are only there to gather wind data for planning the Montcalm Wind project.
“If there’s a MET tower there, does that mean there’s going to be a wind tower right there? No, it doesn’t mean that at all,” Apex Development Manager Albert Jongewaard told the Daily News. “That MET tower helps us understand the wind resources in that general area and how the wind circulates throughout the county as a whole. They sit there for a couple years and measure wind speeds.”
The Daily News spoke with Jongewaard and other Apex officials about their plans for the Montcalm Wind project, as well as to clarify some of the details of the project. The Daily News also asked opponents of the project to share their thoughts and concerns.
FOCUSING ON 11 TOWNSHIPS
Wind power is trending nationally. The United States is currently home to 65,548 wind turbines with a total rated capacity of 108,942 megawatts (MW) as of October 2020, according to the U.S. Geological Service (eerscmap.usgs.gov/uswtdb/viewer/#3/37.25/-96.25 online).
Apex is nearing completion on a wind farm in Isabella County consisting of 136 turbines spread out over 55,000 acres under lease. That project is estimated to generate 385 MW of energy, enough to power nearly 97,000 homes.
Apex’s planned Montcalm Wind project is slightly smaller – estimated to produce 375 MW of energy, or enough electricity to power about 90,000 homes, according to Apex Public Engagement Manager Brian O’Shea.
“For context, a single megawatt is about as much power as a big box store, like Meijer, would use over an entire calendar year with all their lighting, refrigeration and everything else,” O’Shea noted.
Apex projects the Montcalm Wind project will bring an investment of more than $600 million into Montcalm County. So far, Apex has signed more than 100 leases with individuals or families involving 15,000 to 20,000 acres of land in Montcalm County, according to Jongewaard. Apex officials hope to lease up to 50,000 acres of land, although they say the wind turbines and access roads would cover less than 1% of the land lease for the project.
Apex takes four factors into consideration when looking for possible wind project sites: Open land (typically agricultural communities), sufficient wind resource, access to transmission lines and community acceptance.
Montcalm County easily has those first three factors available; it’s the fourth that remains up for debate by some.
While Apex initially looked at all townships in Montcalm County, they have their scope narrowed down to less than a dozen townships. Apex has made presentations and/or been the topic of discussion this year at Douglass, Maple Valley, Montcalm, Pierson, Pine, Sidney and Winfield township board and Planning Commission meetings, among other townships.
“Portions of 11 townships have been considered for potential development, though the specific project footprint will significantly shrink as project details come into focus and studies are conducted around critical environmental habitats, lakes and other considerations,” Jongewaard said. “We’re trying to understand the wind resource and receptivity throughout the county.”
Apex officials say they have taken a purposeful approach in their effort to become acquainted with and involved in Montcalm County’s communities.
Many Montcalm County farmers use pivot irrigation systems and Apex deliberately incorporated a pivot symbol into their Montcalm Wind project logo.
A recent post on Montcalm Wind’s Facebook page (www.facebook.com/MontcalmWind) notes the project’s support of United Way Montcalm-Ionia Counties and the United for Warmth campaign.
The Montcalm Wind website (montcalmwind.com) contains a list of frequently asked questions in anticipation of community curiosity about the project.
“Before we started this process, we worked with landowners across the community, large and small, key opinion leaders, dairy farmers, potato farmers and other folks representing different aspects of the community and we talked to them about the terms of our lease,” Jongewaard said. “We didn’t say ‘this is what it’s going to be, take it or leave it.’ It was a long process coming up with terms that everybody felt comfortable with.”
“Community is at the center of everything we’re going on this project,” O’Shea added. “It’s going to be a community-driven design with community input. This is us working with the community to take advantage of what’s already here and deliver an opportunity to the community from an economic development standpoint. It’s personal for folks like Dan (Paris) and Mel (Christensen) who live right here in Montcalm County.”
Christensen previously worked for Montcalm Community College as director of community and alumni relations and development director.
“I am definitely all about giving back to the community,” she said. “That was important to me in taking this job. Even though Apex is a for-profit company, they are community-minded. That’s what sold me on being a part of this company because the giveback to the community is so important.”
Paris, a Lakeview native, helped work on the Gratiot Wind Farms Project in Gratiot County’s North Shade Township just across the road from Montcalm County’s Carson City. The recently completed 60-turbine project was created by Enel Green Power North America and was then acquired by Consumers Energy.
Apex’s Isabella County wind farm was purchased by DTE and while the Montcalm Wind project would likely be purchased by Consumers Energy or another utility, Apex officials say all agreements and contracts signed by landowners will remain in place if such a transfer occurs.
Apex officials point to Gratiot County as an economic success story for turbines – nearly $50 million in tax revenue has resulted from the project from 2012 to 2019.
“These projects represent opportunity for a lot of people,” Jongewaard said. “These projects are opportunities for local individual landowners, people with a family farm and the challenges they are facing today. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the agricultural world and wind energy represents a drought-resistant or weather-resistant crop. It may help farmers weather the storm or keep the farm in the family. It’s opportunity at a township level too. Wherever we place a turbine, we’ll pay taxes to that township, to the school district and to the county, along with any other millages that may be applied to that local jurisdiction. There’s a tax benefit to all the local government bodies, fire and rescue, you name it, depending on each individual township.”
O’Shea said the wind project could increase Montcalm County’s tax base by an estimated 20%.
“It is a big deal,” he said. “There’s a lot of layers to it – from the farmers to the construction projects to the local tax base.”
“One of the most important components in discussions with the leadership group was identifying landowner protections specific to Montcalm County, including all of the irrigation we have because of the sandy loam soils,” Paris added. “We were able to incorporate some key landowner protection language in those terms and that was as important to them as the financial terms of the lease.”
Apex officials declined to specify compensation amounts, but say participants will receive annual compensation over the project’s 30-plus-year lifetime, including a flat residence payment for living in the project area, plus a per-acre payment based on the land that it signed up, with additional compensation provided for those with project facilities (roads, collection and transmission lines, MET towers and the turbines themselves on their property).
One Montcalm County resident told the Daily News they were offered $6 per acre by Apex during this current research and development phase with the possibility of $35 per acre if that land ends up in the final footprint of the project.
The Montcalm Wind project will take several years to complete, going into at least 2023.
When assessing possible turbine sites, Apex must factor in setbacks for roads, rail lines, houses and non-participating properties, communication signals, streams, ditches and county drains and any environmental impacts and floodplain data. They must comply with township, county, state and federal requirements.
“There’s a lot of restrictions that we’ve got to follow,” Jongewaard noted. “It makes this wind project unique and also more of a challenge.
“We cannot place a turbine in a location that interferes with a pivot without a landowner’s written permission to do so,” he emphasized. “We’re not cleaning out forests to install turbines or placing them in lakes in people’s backyards. We’re going to have setbacks. We follow best practices. If you own property within the footprint and just because somebody signs a lease, that doesn’t mean there’s going to be a turbine on it. There are so many factors we have to take into consideration about where turbines can go. I couldn’t even tell you where the first turbine is going to go yet.”
“We cannot touch your property if you do not participate,” Paris added. “We do not have eminent domain rights.”
CONFLICT OF INTEREST?
Discussions between Apex officials and local officials got underway at least one year ago.
A Nov. 4, 2019, letter bearing an Apex logo and the signatures of local township officials alludes to a steering committee representing approximately 15,000 acres of land in Montcalm County.
“We are exclusively negotiating good faith with Apex for long-term wind easements with Apex Clean Energy and hope to conclude those negotiations and executive easements by the end of this year (2019),” the letter states. “Based on our knowledge of the community and conservations we’ve had with our neighbors, we believe there will be a high degree of participation in this area once the final terms with Apex are set.”
The letter was signed by Dick Karnatz (the Montcalm Township Planning Commission chairman), Chris Rader (the Winfield Township Planning Commission chairman) and by Roger Betten Sr. and Roger Betten Jr., Brandon Carlson, Scott Karnatz, Gary Nielsen, Paul Olson and Ken Rader.
Chris Rader told the Daily News he is aware of people’s concerns about possible conflict of interest situations.
“Dan Paris and Albert Jongewaard starting meeting with people in the fall of 2019,” Rader said. “We started seeing if the project was feasible in Montcalm County. I was part of that committee. We worked hard on the lease agreement and I think it gives the landowner the final choice. Even though we signed this agreement, we don’t have to put a turbine on our property – we have the final say.
“I did sign a preliminary, exploratory lease, but we’re not talking a lot of money here,” he said. “Let’s say you have 600 acres – at $6 an acre, that would be $3,600, which can help you pay for your property taxes and farm. But we’re looking out for the community – not my checkbook. We’re looking at the schools and roads and ways we can help our county.”
The Daily News asked Apex officials about the optics of this letter and of local township board and Planning Commission members creating and approving local wind ordinances after having already personally signed lease agreements with Apex.
“The names on that letter are among some of the individuals in Montcalm County who we asked to provide feedback on general levels of excitement/concern for a project of this type, the potential terms and structure of the lease and general input on the overall potential design of the project (such as how to work around pivot irrigation systems, etc),” Jongewaard said. “These early conversations were constructive and thanks to the feedback we received – from these individuals and others – the Montcalm lease now includes a number of landowner guarantees that are not found in many (if any) other leases in the state. This is something we are all proud of.
“It does not reflect upon the lease status of anyone named therein and I hope, for their sake, that it’s not taken out of context by certain members of the community as a reason to criticize the people on the letter,” he added. “If anything, their input helped ensure that the terms of the lease in Montcalm were designed to be as inclusive as possible while accommodating a project that is designed specifically for Montcalm County.”
Apex calls the arrangement “community-based leasing.”
“Everybody is eligible to participate – that includes elected officials,” Jongewaard said. “You will see some families who are more involved in the community and on township boards and county boards and Planning Commissions. That’s part of the reality of local township government in rural Michigan.
“Michigan is prideful of its local control,” he noted. “There’s nothing inappropriate for a township official to have a wind lease. That’s a choice they make as an individual, but it shouldn’t cloud their judgment or decision making in their duties as a township officer.
“Apex is the third or fourth wind development that I’m aware of to look at Montcalm County,” he added. “Any township that’s developing an ordinance isn’t developing the wind ordinance for us, they’re developing it based on what makes sense for them. I get the perception (of some local concerns), but if we go away, the ordinance will just apply to the next company that comes in here.”
CASTING A SHADOW?
Apex’s wind project plans have resulted in at least one organized group of opponents: Montcalm County Citizens United. The group has a website (mtcabw.org) and its Facebook page private group has 1,500 members and is administered by Erik Benko of Sidney Township.
“When most people think of industrial wind developments, they often envision large turbines churning out seemingly silent energy far away from anyone, but even cursory research quickly dissolves that narrative and reveals the stark reality of fractured communities and miserable neighbors with towing 600-foot turbines casting flicking shadows on their homes and properties,” Benko told the Daily News.
“We are not against green energy, nor do we wish to dictate what people can do on their land,” he said. “However, we are advocating for the responsible placement of turbines which will ensure the rights of non-participating neighbors the peaceful and unhindered use of their property. If such protections for the residents of Montcalm County cut into the profits of a multi-billion industrial developer, then in the end it will have been justified.”
Elisa Simmons is among those active with Montcalm County Citizens United.
The Coral woman sent a notice of intent to file a petition for a referendum to the Maple Valley Township Board on Nov. 19. The township board 10 days earlier on Nov. 9 had voted to adopt an amended zoning ordinance for the township to regulate the development and use of wind energy facilities. Simmons has requested the township’s new zoning ordinance amendment be placed on the ballot at the next regularly scheduled election in the township.
“The wind farm issue is important to me because wind turbines don’t impact only those on whose property they are installed,” Simmons told the Daily News. “At about 600 feet tall, the structures tower over everything else on the landscape. Multiple turbines produce clearly audible sound and subsonic vibration, which can interfere with sleep and cause health issues. Even the industry admits that bird populations are reduced by collisions with blades. These are just a few examples that demonstrate how an entire township is affected by wind farms.
“For this reason, I believe the will of the majority should decide whether or not to allow them in the township,” Simmons said. “A referendum gives every voting resident a voice.”
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