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Big Wind Arrives in Michigan’s Thumb

Fans and foes eye Noble as it builds state’s first wind farm

April 9, 2006 | By Carolyn Kelly
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Noble Environmental Power is erecting 32 wind turbines in Michigan’s Thumb area.

UBLY—This year, a few Michigan farmers are planting a new crop: Wind. Thirty-two turbines are scheduled to arrive here in Huron County this June, marking Michigan’s full-scale entrée into the wind energy industry.

Workers for Noble Environmental Power LLC are already clearing the way for the new 1.5 megawatt turbines, which will be scattered across about 4,700 acres of Bingham Township and will rise nearly 400 feet above this area’s corn, soybeans, and sugar beet fields. Heaps of top soil, waist high and ten feet across, sit next to the graveled, keyhole-shaped new roads built to accommodate the 160-foot trucks that will deliver each turbine tower in three gigantic pieces. And Noble may build seven more farms in nearby Sheridan Township, bringing an estimated 180 additional turbines to a ridge that runs 40 miles through Michigan’s Thumb area.

The rise of Michigan’s first full-scale wind farm indicates that the state is beginning to play catch-up in the fastest-growing sector of the nation’s energy development industry. The potential is huge: A wind map published by the Michigan Public Service Commission confirms that Michigan, the nation’s 14th-windiest state, has plenty of windy locations, particularly along and near the Great Lakes shoreline. On breezy days, turbines could power roughly half of the state’s 3.7 million households.

Advocates say that building a wind energy industry in Michigan could also help to power a badly needed economic renaissance. They add that wind turbines provide income that helps farmers hold onto their land, reduce the state’s dependence on imported coal, cut air and water pollution, and slow both sprawling development and the rise in greenhouse gas emissions that are changing the planet’s climate. The turbines also come as Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm last week called on the Michigan Public Service Commission to evaluate the potential for the state to develop clean alternative sources of power, including wind. 

But the arrival of the wind energy industry in Michigan also raises questions. Wind farms are a new land use in Michigan — the state has just three utility-scale turbines — so the state and most townships have no regulations for the big machines, something advocates say is crucial for making sure that they do not annoy people or harm wildlife. And some wind power advocates say that Michigan must make sure that the communities hosting wind farms enjoy as many economic benefits as possible from the revenue they generate.

Michiganders who love the idea of wind energy — and those who do not — will be watching Noble closely as it builds and operates the state’s first wind farm. The project offers an opportunity to evaluate how well the new company — largely owned by J.P. Morgan, the investment firm, and already at work on a half-dozen other sites in New York — designs, builds, and operates the farms. The company has announced its interest in building a more modest project in Leelanau County and is already recruiting land owners there.

Money Talks
Noble’s Ubly wind farm is rising a mere year after the firm began recruiting landowners that could provide sites for the turbines. That is unusually quick; tangled zoning codes and litigation by people who think they do not want to live near turbines can often delay projects for years or derail them altogether.

The first step in building Ubly’s wind farm —recruiting farmers — went quite well. Noble’s economic packages convinced many residents in this heavily agricultural, tabletop-flat area to sign long-term leases allowing the machines onto their property. Each farmer will earn a base income of $3,000 per year, plus $3,750 per turbine per year or 4 percent of the gross revenue from the wind-driven electricity, whichever is greater. Landowners who signed easements to allow high-voltage transmission lines onto their property to carry the power to the electric grid, will earn $3,000 per year. All leasers also received signing bonuses of either $2000 or $10 per acre, whichever is greater.

Two local farmer that are leasing land to Noble for turbine sites, Charlie Briolat and Eric Hagan, told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service that while the extra income would not make or break them. But they do view the additional “crop” as built-in insurance when it’s a bad year for sugar beets or corn. And the minimum guaranteed annual rent for two turbines could help in other ways in good years; it would be more than enough, for example, to pay for their children’s college tuition. 

But the economic questions rapidly become far more complicated. Representatives of Residents for Sound Economics and Planning, a local group that pushed unsuccessfully for placing the turbines much further away from homes than the county ended up allowing, said they dislike the tax breaks that Noble gained. For the first 12 years of the project, Noble will get a 50 percent break on taxes that help pay for a wide range of county medical, transit, emergency, road, and educational services.

RSEP member Dan Guza said that state tax abatement laws allowed the county and the township to offer much shorter tax breaks that would have kept more money in the community. Mr. Guza also said that more of Noble’s taxes should stay in Huron County rather than going to the state, since the county provides the wind and local residents must contend with the big machines.

But Peter Mastic, a longtime Michigan native who is managing director of Noble Environmental Power, said there is no reason to treat the firm any differently than others that have brought development to the county, where, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, unemployment rate exceeds 8 percent and average incomes are about 20 percent below the national average. Mr. Mastic pointed out that the township granted similar abatements to other companies, including Thumb Electric Cooperative, in recent years.

Others argue for throwing out such traditional economic development models and trying something quite different. They say that the best way to harvest the economic potential of wind farming is to build a community-owned project — something that some advocates for bringing wind power to Leelanau County are already promoting as an alternative to working with Noble there.

The project is already affecting Huron County in some small ways that company representatives say will grow in the near future. Noble employs 10 local people here, including Mr. Hagan’s wife, Jeannette, and Mr. Briolat’s two college-age daughters, who worked for Noble between school semesters. The company is also purchasing the gravel and concrete needed for access roads and foundations from local companies, and has promised more jobs for local residents as the pace of the construction project picks up.

While the project’s few local opponents say such arrangements smack of favoritism and that the jobs are only temporary, proponents point to a bigger picture: A well-developed wind industry, they say, could provide a variety of longer-term jobs in engineering, manufacturing, construction and maintenance. 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 to design, manufacture, construct, and maintain wind turbines were fully developed.

Zoning for Wind and Fighting Sprawl
Huron County’ timely enactment of zoning ordinances necessary for permitting a wind farm also sped up Noble’s Ubly project. The ordinance, passed last summer, applies in the 15 of the county’s 23 townships that use county zoning. In a state where each township can, if it chooses, control its own zoning, a nearly countywide ordinance was a big help, since the proposed projects span several townships.

Russ Lundberg, Huron County’s director of building and zoning, said that the ordinance’s easy passage was due to more than enthusiasm about alternative energy.

“The intent isn’t only to create grid energy, it’s to preserve Huron County’s agriculture heritage by discouraging other uses in that area,” Mr. Lundberg. “We hope that the sheer presence of a wind turbine will discourage non-farm residential and other uses in that district.” 

The extra income, he said, would help farmers stay on their land, which is rapidly being gobbled up as growers, faced with low prices and high costs, sell out to land developers. Sprawling development devoured 300,000 acres of Michigan farmland between 1997 and 2002, according to the U.S. Census of Agriculture, andMr. Lundberg said Huron County is losing population steadily.

As a result, the county favors farmland preservation over heavy residential development and sees agriculture and alternative energy development as sound alternatives to sprawl. That, he added, is why the Huron County Board of Commissioners and Huron County Planning Commission unanimously approved Noble’s project.

Seeing is Believing
Noble also took steps to mollify fears that it is difficult to live near wind turbines. The company arranged for township officials and farmers like Mr. Briolat and Mr. Hagan to visit a wind farm in Fenner Park, New York. Both said the visit was a decisive factor in their decision to sign easements that would allow Noble Environmental Power to build turbines and run transmission lines on their property.

“I thought they were very graceful,” said Mr. Hagan, who is expecting four turbines among his corn, black beans, wheat and soybeans. “They turn very slowly.”

Mr. Briolat said that the visit gave him more confidence in Noble as a company.

“It meant a lot to me that they’d take us to see one before you signed on the dotted line,” he said.

Angie Weber, another member of RSEP, which unsuccessfully advocated for requiring turbines to be place much further back from property lines to minimize what members claim are their dangers and bad effects, felt that the trip did not offer enough information to make an informed decision. She said that township officials and landowners only visited the wind farm for 45 minutes and that the only people they talked to were those the company introduced to them.

But Julie Harker-Leigh, Noble’s local director of community outreach, who was born and raised in nearby Bad Axe, Mich., and returned to this area fifteen years ago, said she is confident that Ubly’s big new project will speak for itself once it’s up and running.

“I think people will really see what kind of a developer Noble is,” she told a visiting reporter as she steered her car around a field that will be temporarily graveled over to facilitate trucks carrying huge turbine towers and blades.

Noble has already videotaped the entire delivery route, Ms. Harker-Leigh explained, because they will have to return the land to its original condition once construction is complete. The mounds of topsoil set aside for the road building must be redistributed over the fields and the new roads must be narrowed from 35 feet to 16 feet. Noble, she said, has posted a bond to take care of any damage.

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

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