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Against the Wind?

In Michigan, it’s still no breeze to build a wind farm

October 12, 2005 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Mackinaw City officials say that the turbines near their city, Michigan’s first built with private capital, are tourist attractions and symbols of pride for their town.

Gerald Greiner, a third-generation farmer in Crystalia Township, thinks he’s found a new cash crop: Wind.

Mr. Greiner, who remembers when his farm got electricity in 1938, is one of about 30 farmers in rural Oceana County who have leased parts of their land to Mackinaw Power Company for a proposed wind farm. The Michigan firm wants to build 21 wind turbines, each stretching 390 feet skywards from Weare Township’s rolling hills, by far the largest wind farm in the state. Farmers like Mr. Greiner would receive $3,000 to $7,000 annually for each turbine built on their land. The project's scale would be a big step for Michigan’s wind industry, which lags far behind many other states and has so far built just three commercial-scale wind turbines — one in Traverse City and two in Mackinaw City.

According to Mackinaw Power, the turbines would generate about 35 megawatts, enough to power all 9,000 homes in Oceana County. But that barely taps the state’s wind power potential, according to a “wind map” published by the Michigan Public Service Commission. It projects that Michigan, the nation’s 14th windiest state, could generate 7,460 megawatts of electricity, enough to power more than 1.9 million of Michigan’s 3.7 million households. According to a 2004 report by the Renewable Energy Policy Project, a Washington-based alternative energy advocacy group, wind power could generate more than 8,000 jobs in Michigan if the state’s potential was fully developed.

The Mackinaw Power Company’s Oceana proposal is a small step in that direction; it would bring perhaps 50 construction and five permanent maintenance and operations jobs to the county.

But the firm faces three major challenges—two unique to Michigan and one that is common nationwide. Currently, only a few of Michigan’s local governments, which are the units holding regulatory power over wind power, actually have turbine ordinances, and they differ from each other. Also, the state lacks any of the policies and tax incentives that other states use to stimulate aggressive, successful wind development. And, as elsewhere in America, there are those who claim that the big turbines ruin views, make too much noise, harm birds and humans, and reduce property values.

Wanted: Uniform Zoning, Smart Incentives
Even if Mr. Greiner and Mackinac Power overcome these obstacles, their big project will amount to only a small nudge to the country’s fastest-growing power industry. Between 1990 and 2003, U.S. wind power quadrupled; while that added up to less than one percent of the nation’s electrical generation, the expansion is accelerating. For example, nine Northeastern states just adopted greenhouse gas reduction measures that require more renewable energy sources, including wind.

But for wind companies to develop a significant presence in Michigan, they must overcome the maze of regulations that each of Michigan’s 1,800 townships, villages, and cities maintain independently. These local units currently have regulatory command of wind turbines, but almost all of them say nothing about the big machines. That makes any local, township-by-township approval process difficult. For example, in order to complete their Oceana County project, Mackanaw Power Company founder Rich VanderVeen, who built the two turbines in Mackinaw City, and Thom Darga, a Leelanau County-based developer, must win the approval of each of the four townships in Oceana County where their wind turbines would be located.

At least one lawmaker, Republican state Representative Howard Walker of Traverse City, is attempting to eliminate what could become a thicket of different local regulations. Representative Walker is sponsoring House Bills 4648 and 4649, which would establish uniform zoning, building, setback, safety, and other standards for wind turbines.

“Wind doesn’t follow municipal boundaries,” Mr. Walker said during an interview with the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service. “That’s why statewide guidelines are important. We have to provide a regulatory structure that works with industry. Some of the townships or municipalities in good wind areas have basically zoned wind out of existence. That means there will never be serious wind industry development.”

Mr. Walker’s words seem to match Mr. VanderVeen’s experience; he is still waiting to break ground in the four Oceana townships after three years of effort.

“We need statewide standards,” he said, noting his frustration with what he regards as “NIMBYism” (a ‘not in my back yard’ attitude) and misinformation.

Wind power advocates in Michigan also see another important role for the state to play. They say that before the industry can soar in Michigan the state must offer some sort of tax incentive to an interested company or enact “renewables portfolio standards” that force power companies to draw on alternative energy sources for some minimum percentage of the electricity they sell. Most of the states that are wind power leaders—including California, Texas, Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Wisconsin—enacted at least one of those two policies in the 1990s.

Now, Michigan is working to catch up. This spring, Republican state Representative Roger Kahn of Saginaw introduced House Bill 4608, which would require electric service providers to produce at least 7 percent of the energy that they sell from renewable sources by 2013. Also, Representative John Moolenaar, a Midland Republican, introduced House Bill 4647, which would provide tax credits to taxpayers that own and use small wind turbines of less than two megawatts.

Against the Wind
Mackinaw Power and others eyeing Michigan's windy coasts also face another, less predictable obstacle: Some people dislike wind turbines and simply do not want a wind turbine anywhere near their property. Others claim that the turbines make low-frequency noise that would disrupt their sleep, or that the turbines make flickering shadows that would disturb them at certain times of the day and year, or that wind farms harm residential property values.

Some residents of Golden Township, where Mackinaw Power wants to build several turbines, are using such objections to push for a one-year moratorium on wind turbines taller than 100 feet. Alternative energy experts point out that, if successful, that move would run out the clock on a federal tax credit encouraging wind power development that is due to expire at the end of this year. Many wind power developers regard the federal credit as key to moving their projects forward.

Mr. Greiner views at least some of the opposition to wind power as tension between his area’s longstanding agricultural character and its current suburbanization. “Of course we have an envious neighbor across the road,” he said. “Most of the opposition has been from people who don’t have any interest in an agricultural area.”

Real estate agents often view land like Mr. Greiner’s as potential subdivisions, while he and other farmers realize that wind turbine leases will help them stay in business and avoid selling to developers. But most realtors who oppose wind farms say they don’t like the big machines simply because they drive down property values.

“People need to have an appreciation for the value of homes,” said Dodie Stark, an agent for Coldwell Banker Anchor Real Estate, in Oceana County. “For many, real estate is their biggest investment and a means to a secure retirement. Views are very important, especially in a resort area, and a group of 400-foot-tall wind turbines 500 feet from homes or cottages could have a devastating effect on property values.”

Two Studies, Two Answers
However, two studies examining how wind turbines affect property values draw sharply different conclusions about that claim.

Free But Costly: An Economic Analyses of a Wind Farm in Nantucket Sound,  published by the Beacon Hill Institute in 2004 and widely distributed by local and national wind farm opponents, studied a proposed offshore wind farm. Funded by the Egan Family Foundation, which has several of its members actively opposed to the Nantucket proposal, the study asked 1,000 area homeowners and tourists if they thought that offshore wind farm would hurt property values and tourism. Most people said they thought it would; wind opponents then used those results to back their claim that the project would be too costly for local home and business owners.

But a 2003 study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and conducted by the Renewable Energy Policy Project, looked at actual real estate transactions rather than opinions about them, and reached the exactly opposite conclusion. It compared the sales prices of homes in ten communities within sight of one or more wind turbines with ten comparable communities where no wind farms were in sight. Analysis of 25,000 real estate sales showed that properties near wind farms increased in value more quickly than similar properties in comparable communities lacking turbines.

Wind power proponents reject most other worries wind power opponents have. They say that modern turbines are very quiet — far less noisy than, say, traffic on nearby highways. And while they agree that the flickering shadows and bird deaths caused by spinning turbines are challenges, they assert that careful selection of turbine sites reduces or eliminate both problems.

Proponents add that, unlike conventional power sources, wind turbines are environmentally and economically benign because they emit zero pollution, are completely impervious to spiking fuel costs, and are now on the verge of being cheaper to operate than most other power source. And, they say, bringing wind power to Michigan, if done correctly, would spark new industry in a state that is in desperate need of it and that could quickly tool up old factories to build new turbines.           

Wanted: More Megawatts
Proponents and opponents of wind power do agree on one thing: Michigan’s demand for electricity, while comparatively flat in recent years, will grow significantly unless the state mandates aggressive energy efficiency measures.

According to Michigan’s Future Electric Capacity Needs Report, released by the Michigan Public Service Commission this summer, the state's demand for electricity is expected to rise by two percent annually. The state's utilities generate roughly 22,400 megawatts annually, 70 percent of it from coal. Michigan will need to generate about 400 to 500 more megawatts of power by 2009, said the study. The Oceana County wind farm alone would provide seven to 10 percent of that need.

Brian Keane, the president of Smart Power, a non-profit renewable energy-marketing group in Boston, Massachusetts, summed up the choice Michigan faces.

“The question isn’t, ‘Do we need a power plant?’ We do need a power plant. The question now is, ‘Do you want to build a coal plant, a natural gas plant, a nuclear plant, or do you want to build a wind power plant?’”

Carolyn Kelly is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s associate editor. Reach her at carolyn@mlui.org.

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