Commercial Wind Power in Northern Michigan: Three Stories

Within Centerville’s 17-page draft ordinance, the restriction that has the most negative effect on utility-scale wind is the height limit: 199 feet at the top of the blade sweep, which is too short and inefficient for utility-scale wind to be cost-effective. “It was a night sky issue,” Weed says.

At that height turbines do not need a light to meet Federal Aviation Administration requirements. Has America passed thepoint where red lights at night can stall a transition to alternative energy? In Michigan, the dialog will happen county by county, township by township.

The countryside around McBain did not make it onto the WERZ report of Michigan’s top wind-potential sites, but here wind power is further along than anywhere else in the North.

“We knew the coastal areas looked great for wind,” says Heritage’s Rick Wilson, “but knowing Michigan as we do, we know that’s where the high value real estate is, and it’s where the ecologically sensitive areas are. The NIMBYism is very high there.” For Wilson, having worked for the North’s three largest land conservancies heightened that understanding.

The team at Heritage Sustainable Energy broadened the scope of its search. “We took the wind map of Michigan and said let’s identify the places off the coast where the wind is still great, the accessibility to high voltage transmission lines is good and where the land use compatibility is good.”

Was it by chance, then, that they ended up where no zoning rules exist? “I’m not saying we don’t consider zoning,” Wilson says. “But we figure if we have the criteria that we need to succeed, we can gain the community support to get changes to land use regulations that we’d need.”

Strict zoning regulations or none at all, Wilson says it remains in a wind company’s best interest to do right by the landowners. “We do not want to get into fights. We want enthusiastic support wherever we go. These are expensive and difficult to develop. We want communities that want us to be a part of them.”

That translates to extensive discussions with farmers about where to place turbines and access roads. And in a departure from industry practice, Heritage pays royalty fees to nearby landowners who do not even have a turbine on their land—similar to the pooling concept in oil and gas, which is the industry that company founder Marty Lagina hails from. Studies show that landowners with a financial interest in a turbine are more accepting of it.

Big Wind is coming to Northern Michigan, and whether citizens think their locality should roll out the welcome mat or raise the fortress walls, now is the time they should weigh in, says Benzie’s Roberts. Waiting until the rules are final and a proposed development is on the table is too late to dramatically influence the outcome.

“Once the ordinance is in effect, you can’t really stop a project if it’s consistent with the ordinance,” Roberts says.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse. [email protected]

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