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By John Q. Horn

You can’t help but notice them, as they (not so) slowly sprout up around the state; these enormous, stark white windmills. Not traditional windmills evocative of a Dutch postcard, rather, these are sleek, aerodynamic wind turbines, and they are progressively turning Michigan’s agricultural land into wheelhouses for clean, renewable energy.

Wind farms have been built in the Thumb, mid-Michigan and the western side of the state–and the Upper Peninsula will soon be home to its first wind facility. Heritage Sustainable Energy of Traverse City is erecting upward of 13 turbines in Delta County on the Garden Peninsula. Garden Wind Farm should be completed before year’s end. Each turbine is expected to generate 5,000 megawatt hours of energy per year. One turbine was completed at the end of 2011.

According to Delta Township Supervisor Morgan Tatrow, the project is still on pace for 2012 completion.

“It’s very much on track,” he says.

He said 13 concrete bases have been installed. From early to mid-June, 125 to 130 semi trucks are expected to roll into Delta Township with the remaining turbines and their components. With newfound usage for previously unused or under-used agricultural property, the creation of new jobs, new tax base revenue and a continued renewable energy source, Tatrow said the ripple effect on the Upper Peninsula community is welcomed.

“I do see it as a good thing,” Tatrow says. “Seventy-five local workers are working, which is a boost. This has a big impact on the whole county and it could for the rest of the Upper Peninsula as well.”

In mid-Michigan’s Gratiot County, near Breckenridge, 133 wind turbines went live at the end of 2011. Built by General Electric, these turbines are 460 feet high and are expected to generate more than 200 megawatts of electricity for 50,000-plus homes for nearly 20 years. An average two-story home uses about 50 kilowatts per day, or 1,500 kilowatts per month.

Of the 133 turbines, 58 are owned by DTE Energy; the rest are owned by Chicago-based Invenergy, which, seven years ago, first explored the area, asking residents if they would be willing to lease land. So, why Gratiot County?

“We have good wind,” says Donald Schurr, president of Greater Gratiot Development. “It’s not as good as the Thumb or lakefront communities, but at the 10,000-foot level, there is a little sweet spot and we are in that spot.”
The process works like this:

  • A privately held company studies wind activity in a specific region. If viable, it approaches local land owners about leasing their land to house the turbines. They work with residents and local governments to move forward.
  • Once approved by land owners and local officials, a land bank is created, crews are brought in and turbines are erected.
  • The wind turns the turbines’ blades, creating electrical energy stored on a grid. Part of that energy is sold to power companies like DTE. The rest is housed and distributed.

Successful wind farms need a place to collect the energy and tie into a power grid. Gratiot County has that, thanks to the presence of a closed refinery in the community and a former Tier-1 automotive factory.

“The lines are still around,” says Schurr.

Things appear to be working out well. Schurr says Des Moines-based wind farm developer Excelon has already started Phase I this summer of a second wind farm in Gratiot County. Beebe Community Wind Farm LLC is expected to be operational by the end of 2012, with 38 new turbines generating energy just south of Gratiot Wind.

Construction in the county created 150 jobs for the first farm in Gratiot County. About 15 employees will work full-time in engineering and maintenance on the property.

Schurr said 250 families were involved in leasing 35,000 acres, with property owners getting $70-$80 per acre.

And while it appears to be a win-win-win with the wind, not everybody is overjoyed.

In the U.P.’s Garden Peninsula, residents have made their opposition clear. Some don’t want to have to look at the towers. Others are concerned about the safety of migratory birds like bald and golden eagles (and some bats), who could face a shocking end while negotiating these huge, very strong fan blades in their flight corridors.

Opponents have peppered local officials and wind farm developers with questions and concerns.

Michigan’s Fish and Wildlife Service has been aggressive in working with companies like Heritage to establish best practices. FWS Field Supervisor Scott Hicks says the Garden Peninsula development is a proving ground to see how disruptive–if at all–construction projects like this will be to aviary preservation.

According to Hicks, FWS has conducted dozens of studies on flight paths, seasonal travel patterns and other data to identify and forecast if birds such as bald and golden eagles, as well as bats, will be displaced or in danger due to the presence of the turbines. He says Heritage has been cooperative with compliancy requirements on the company’s end as well. “I think they are sincere in their efforts in working with us,” Hicks says. “Developers can avoid migratory corridors and other areas that may have higher risks for wildlife by working with us and the DNR early in the process. There’s no question that working together we can significantly reduce wildlife impacts.”

Photos by Avram Golden

John Horn has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, including 12 as a freelance writer. He has covered city government, crime, real estate and sports for both community newspapers and large, metro dailies. He has written extensively about dining and drinking in and around Detroit for numerous clients, locally, nationally and internationally. He loves the city. He loves up north. He loves his wife Kerry, their toddler daughter Maeve, their 80-pound Labradoodle, Lamont, and the Detroit Tigers. In that order.

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