Mr. Smiley's Windmill Wars in Northern Michigan

Steve Smiley knows that some people—maybe many people—think of windmills in the countryside as ugly. Sleek white icons of technology, they tower conspicuously from farm fields and forests. For people who want an uninterrupted pastoral landscape (ignoring the cell towers and power lines) in Northern Michigan, a windmill gets in the way. And when people are close to a windmill, they hear a sound, a low hum, that some also think of as part of the ugliness. So call it the ugliness footprint of windmills: the look and the sound.

But the thing about the ugliness footprint of windmills, Smiley says, is that all of the ugliness is immediately apparent and aesthetic in nature: you can see a windmill; you can faintly hear a windmill if you are near. That’s it. Nobody is killing or being killed in a distant land for a windmill (oil). No mountains are being flattened and left as geographic scars because of a windmill (coal). Nothing remains radioactive for thousands of years—all the while vulnerable to attack and theft—because of a windmill (nuclear). No fish or animals or people are contaminated because of a windmill (oil, coal and nuclear). Windmills don’t warm the planet (coal and oil). Windmills would strengthen both our national security and economic security because our fortunes wouldn’t be so tightly bolted to the most unstable place on the planet (oil). And we wouldn’t care so much that India and China crave oil more than we do and are willing to pay more for it. (Expect oil prices to get worse, not better.)

In Steve Smiley’s mind, it’s time for Americans in general and Northern Michigan residents in particular to walk through a door to a new place where they accept windmills on the landscape, because all of the traditional energy doors lead to places that are far, far uglier.But then, Smiley has been saying this sort of thing for decades—why should we start listening now? On a hot and sunny morning in August, Steve Smiley is ready to talk alternative energy. Well, not alternative energy, actually, because he abhors the term alternative energy and insists on using the term renewable energy. “Alternative implies it will always be second place, not taken seriously,” he says.

Besides, renewable is a key point. Another key point is that weaning Northern Michigan from fossil and nuclear fuel will take more technology than just windmills.

In one way, Smiley’s house, in the countryside a few miles from Suttons Bay, makes an apt setting for today’s chat, because it is a live, 3-D display of renewable power technology. “We’re 99 percent off the grid,” he says, popping open a laptop on the picnic table and plugging it into an orange extension cord. From the shade of his deck, you can see the blade of his 87-foot-tall, home-sized windmill spinning out electricity in the summer wind, its shadow flickering in the untended field. Near the windmill’s base, an 8-by-8-foot bank of solar panels converts the sun to hot water beneath a blue-black sheen. Out back, black solar-heated hoses snake under a berm, warming water for the house. And on this day scented by maple trees and wild grasses, nature provides the ideal sound track: the electric whir of cicada song surges and ebbs in the warm air.

Yes, Smiley’s personal power playground illustrates that renewable energy can work in Northern Michigan, but it is also somewhat misleading, because Smiley does not advocate a national or regional power solution that relies on individuals going off the grid. The logistics of that on a widespread scale are not viable, in his mind. Would, for example, every family in a Detroit subdivision put up their own windmill? Not going to happen. Besides, there’s a cheaper way.

Smiley’s vision strikes a midpoint between the corporate utility power system we have today and individuals fending for themselves in the renewable energy jungle. “It’s called community power,” he says. To explain the strategy, he clicks through a plan he created that would allow the entire west side of Traverse City—all homes, plus such energy hogs as Munson Medical Center, the Grand Traverse Commons, Meijer, Great Wolf Lodge and others—to derive all electricity and heat from renewable energy sources. Not a drop of Middle East oil. Not a speck of Appalachian coal. Not a single electron from a uranium pellet. He wrote the plan in 2005 while working as a consultant for Traverse City Light and Power—a community-owned utility—as part of a state grant designed to encourage renewable energy development.

The plan sounds straightforward enough. Build about six to 10 windmills and construct a small power plant that would burn biofuel, mostly wood chips—Smiley suggests refurbishing the dormant power plant that once heated the state hospital, whose grounds comprise the Grand Traverse Commons. The windmills would generate electricity, and the power plant would create electricity and heat water to be pumped through underground pipes into homes and businesses. Some solar power would round out the package.

The utility hired the international engineering firm Black and Veatch and others to engineer the project, which priced out between $70 million and $100 million. “None of this is visionary, it’s just technology transfer,” Smiley says. He means that all of the necessary equipment exists right now and that systems just like this are today being used to power towns in Europe larger than Traverse City. But even in America, it’s a back-to-the-future plan: many older cities once heated downtown buildings with networks of steam pipes, and New York City still does.

What if tiny towns all across Northern Michigan adopted this same system? Each would have a modest wood chip–burning power plant and maybe a dozen windmills in the countryside nearby. Every morning the plant would get a load of chips, and a small plume of water vapor would rise out the stack; the windmills would, of course, create no pollution at all.

To convince TCLP management that the plan was not just a pipe dream, Smiley arranged a trip to Denmark, Sweden and Germany with board members and staff in October 2006. Jim Cooper, a TCLP staffer, went along. “It was exciting, awe inspiring,” he says. “At first we went to these little towns—2,000 or 3,000 people—and they’d just have a little building with a wood-fired boiler,” he says. Windmills spun outside of town. But Cooper wondered, What about a larger town? The team then visited a Swedish city with 80,000 people, and the system was working there, too. For Cooper, one point became undeniable: “Michigan is way behind, even in the U.S., and we are at the bottom end compared to what Europeans are doing with renewable energy.”

These days, though, Smiley’s plan for Traverse City’s west side still sits on the shelf. Will it ever become a reality? “Steve’s plan is fantastic,” Cooper says. But then the enthusiasm in his voice wanes. “The infrastructure costs are what’s hard to surmount,” Cooper says. “Digging up everybody’s sidewalk, some streets, and somebody might have just put in a $4,000 furnace that they want to keep …” His voice trails off.

On a sunny October 2, with peak autumn color still a week away, Steve Smiley heads to Petoskey to meet with a 70-something farm couple who own about 400 acres high on a ridge southwest of town. Smiley is working to put together a 20-windmill project on the outskirts of Petoskey—enough electricity to equal the town’s annual usage—and today the couple (who wishes to remain anonymous) will sign agreements to lease him land for five windmill sites. Smiley has already signed leases for six other sites. Wind energy is rapidly becoming a realm of big money and big business and national policy, but in Northern Michigan, developers still rely on personal relationships with regular folks to provide land that makes wind farms possible.

Petoskey, like Traverse City and 23 other towns in Michigan, has a locally owned utility, which makes negotiating for access to the power grid much simpler. Smiley calls this type “the good kind of utility.”Smiley turns his Subaru extended-cab pickup from U.S. 31 onto Resort Pike Road and climbs the ridge. Passing by the window is the kind of landscape that fuels opponent passion. Green pastures fall away to wide valleys. Seagulls hover in the wind and feed among grazing cattle. A stiff west wind pushes Lake Michigan into rows of whitecaps, brilliant against the dark blue water of October.

Smiley arrives at the farm house and is welcomed in. He sits with the couple at the dining room table. Windows provide the only light. The husband wears a brown short-sleeve shirt, has white hair and is trim, muscular for his age. The wife has a neat gray coiffe and wears a prim gray cardigan with small mother-of-pearl buttons. The couple ran a milking operation until 1980 and then switched to beef cattle until five years ago, when they got out of cattle altogether. The farm has been in the family since 1912.

Why are they considering wind? “I want the farm to still be here, in the family. I don’t want to develop it,” the man says. He pauses and thinks a moment. “The windmills would just make life a little easier.”

The woman adds her points. “Wind is not polluting; it’s clean energy and it’s always there.”The couple reads through the lease documents, spreading them out beside the bowl of apples, bananas and oranges at the table’s center. For a while, the only sounds are pages turning and the clock pendulum swinging as Smiley gives the couple the time they need.“You can cancel the lease in three years if there’s not a permit,” Smiley says—he would still need zoning changes to allow windmill construction.

The man looks up. “You mean one year? I don’t want to wait three,” he says, thinking perhaps of his age.

There’s a long silence. “I told [a neighbor] that I’m going through with it,” the man says. And now another long silence. Are there doubts? The woman rolls a pen back and forth in her hands. Smiley has been talking with the couple for eight years.

Finally, the woman breaks the silence. “Might as well, let’s do it.”

They decide to head into town to have an officer at the bank notarize the papers. An hour later, the documents are signed and stamped. In the parking lot, Smiley shakes hands good-bye and is on his way home.

It has been a big day, but Smiley needs several more big days before Petoskey becomes a shining beacon of green power. He needs nine more sites. He needs $2 million per windmill—local investors wanted. But even more important, he needs a community that is willing to share his vision for clean community power and approve zoning rules that will enable the world’s most cost-competitive renewable power source to flourish.

Michigan’s lowly place in the renewable energy world is nicely revealed on a map that displays the nation’s installed base of wind power generation. At the end of 2007, the United States had 13,000 megawatts of wind generation, but Michigan had only 3 megawatts—all of which Steve Smiley was in part responsible for.

The state’s meager energy standing is especially galling to Smiley for a couple of reasons. One, the state is ranked 14th in wind potential without even counting the potential of windmills in the Great Lakes, where wind is strong. And two, a Michigan town—Traverse City, actually—was once lauded nationwide as being on the forefront of renewable power. The year was 1996, and Smiley had just helped TCLP bring online what was at the time the nation’s largest wind turbine, built on a ridge just west of town. Today’s turbines produce about twice as much power.

Wind power rapidly gained favor in western states as the 90’s closed, and meanwhile Smiley and two business partners erected two wind turbines in the Mackinac Straits that were owned by Manistee-based Crystal Flash, a petroleum distribution company. The momentum in Northern Michigan seemed to be heading in the right direction, but then it stalled when the same team tried to site wind turbines on a ridge southeast of Charlevoix. Public opposition rose up, and the company pulled out. Locals cut windmills no slack for being a hip renewable energy source; opponents labeled windmills an industrial use in an agricultural area. The ugliness footprint issue prevailed.

As the years of the fresh millennium unfurled, word would occasionally circulate of windmill siting proposals here and there around the North. In each case, local boards would take up the issue of zoning, and without exception, windmills were shut out based on height restrictions or setbacks from property lines.

Just 10 miles southwest of Smiley’s house, in Leelanau County’s Centerville Township, Noble Environmental Power (Smiley has no affiliation) announced in 2006 plans to build a windmill farm of about 50 turbines roughly tracing French Road, which runs along an enchanting ridge of orchards, woodlots, pastures and faraway views. Dozens of people turned out for the first public meeting about the plan, and all but a handful were passionately opposed. The few supporters were mostly farmers who could have hosted windmills and received the roughly $600 a month fee for each one—each windmill needs about 40 acres.

The township appointed a citizen committee to study the issue and propose rules. Two years later, the rules are still not final, but proposed size limits would effectively shut out commercial windmills. Tim Johnson, head of the planning commission, said one of the biggest surprises of his career came in seeing who supported and who opposed windmills. He expected conservatives to attack windmills as a goofy liberal scheme and liberals to support windmills as a way to combat global warming. “But it was completely the opposite,” Johnson says. “It was 50-year-old guys with ponytails who opposed the plan and conservative farmers who supported it. The liberals all said, ‘Of course we want wind power, just not here.’ I told them they were basically being NIMBYs.” For farmers, windmills were a land rights issue: why can’t they use their land as they see fit? And the income could help keep their farms in farming.

At this point, the urgency that propelled Centerville’s zoning rules has abated, because Noble pulled out, now focused on siting about 100 windmills in Michigan’s Thumb, where locals are more accepting. A separate 32-windmill project went online there in January 2008.

Though Smiley is discouraged by Centerville’s proposed rules—“I wrote them a letter and told them they were putting their heads in the sand,” he says—Smiley also opposed the Noble Energy proposal. “It was too big for the area,” he says. In the North, he prefers smaller, widespread clusters of windmills, not giant wind farms. What’s more, it went against his principle of local ownership. “Why should we mess up our landscape for a bunch of people in Connecticut who want some tax breaks?” he says. And, actually, profits from wind power these days are likely to be going even farther away, because European confidence in the technology has led them to finance a great deal of America’s wind power.

There’s a saying Smiley likes: Your own pigs don’t stink. “People are more likely to put up with windmills if they own them and they receive the benefits,” he says. Those benefits include profits from energy sales staying in the community, likewise for wages from windmill technicians. Locals would also have far more control over their energy future.

Like other entrepreneurs living on the ragged edge of their industries, Steve Smiley’s professional life is not easily defined. Yes, he’s all about getting Northern Michigan to be 100 percent renewable (not including transportation fuels). Yes, he’s all about siting his own wind farm. Yes, he’s all about consulting with others to help them site windmills—he’s helping the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and Traverse City Light and Power, among others, at this time. And yes, he does energy audits for commercial customers—actually, that’s how he makes most of his money these days. But even all of that does not embrace the full scope of what Steve Smiley dreams of. In fact, those projects don’t even embrace what might be his biggest dream of all: a windmill manufacturing company.

November 30 rolls around, and the blustery month that sank the Edmund Fitzgerald and dozens of other ships over history is living up to its petulant reputation. Gale-force winds careen out of the north, blowing snow in a horizontal blur across U.S. 31 as Smiley heads again to Petoskey. This time he’s going to help client Ken Harrington of Odawa Construction erect a wind testing station, and he hauls 10 sections of 10-foot steel pole strapped by bungee cords and protruding from the back of his pickup.

As gusts buffet the sagging little truck on the snowy highway, Smiley explains why a windmill manufacturing company makes so much sense. First is economics 101: supply and demand (Smiley has a master’s degree in geography and economics and one year of Ph.D. studies in environmental economics). There’s currently a worldwide shortage of windmills, with about a three-year waiting period. “That’s if you happen to be a big corporate customer wanting a hundred windmills. If you happen to be a small town or tribe looking for one or two or even 10 windmills, then you probably won’t even get a call back,” he says.

Second, there’s Michigan itself. What made the state great? Manufacturing big things with gears out of steel and resin. What’s causing Michigan’s economy to crater today? All those plants sitting idle. “We have the engineering expertise and manufacturing infrastructure here,” he says. He is licensing the windmill technology from an internationally respected Danish firm.

And third, there’s Smiley’s passion and area of expertise: community power. “I am focusing on a market that is being completely ignored—small communities and tribes,” he says. A couple of weeks from today he’ll be driving to Colorado for a national conference of tribes looking at renewable energy businesses. Along the way he’ll visit his most promising first customer, the White Earth Band in Northern Minnesota (Winona LaDuke’s tribe, though she’s not involved in the project). By the end of 2008 he also hopes to have two windmills built near Traverse City to show off to potential customers. Eventually he’d like to build about 250 windmills a year, and he says he’s assembling a team of component manufacturers to make it happen.

Smiley pulls into the site where the wind test station for his proposed Petoskey project will rise on a ridge next to a closed landfill south of town. The gusts, even stronger up here, whip snow across the field. In the improbably dim afternoon light, three men bulked and dark in winter work suits wait with an idling front-end loader and sledge hammers. “The wind’s too strong to raise the pole today, but we’ll get it assembled on the ground,” Smiley says, surveying the scene.

He pulls on a wool hat. He zips up his red windbreaker. Then he stops. “Oh, here, read this,” he says and reaches into the jumble of his back seat to pull out a manufacturing business plan, his latest vision put to paper. Smiley gets out of the car—wind slams the door shut—and he walks across the field. Around him, last summer’s grasses, now tawny and dry, poke about a foot above the snowpack. They whip and vibrate, crazy in the wind, as if each blade itself is connected to a wild electric current.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse. [email protected]

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