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Clean Energy / News & Views / N. Mich. Wind Study Asks, 'What Do We Want?'

N. Mich. Wind Study Asks, 'What Do We Want?'

Unique regional initiative may find some tentative answers

August 29, 2011 | By Glenn Puit

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Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of the news article posted on this page on Aug. 29, 2011.

Several items in the original version of this story warranted correction or clarification.

The original version described a three-part survey performed by Macalester College on behalf of the Understanding Wind Initiative as “non-scientific.” MLUI has determined that describing the overall surveying project that way is incorrect.

Dr. Roopali Phadke of Macalester did not acknowledge in an interview with MLUI that the overall survey efforts were “not scientifically random.”

The story may have inadvertently implied that UWI handpicked participants for a daylong symposium. In fact, volunteers applied for participation in the forum and were selected with the intention of balancing the resulting group’s demographics.

Finally, Bradley Hopwood of Arcadia Township said his township was not the first to impose a moratorium on wind energy permit applications, and that the township already has controlling language regarding wind energy systems in its zoning ordinance.

What do the residents of Benzie and Manistee counties want—and what will their townships ultimately allow—when it comes to developing utility-scale wind power?

Both questions are crucial, and not just in Benzie and Manistee, where Duke Energy, one of the world’s largest energy companies, wants to invest more than $360 million in a 112-turbine wind farm. The questions are also being asked in other communities around the state where windpower development is encountering stiff resistance from some local residents who claim the proposals will do more harm than good.

In Benzie and Manistee, however, officials are taking an innovative approach to breaking up a logjam of understandable concerns, alarming claims, zoning moratoriums, recall threats, and hot-tempered town hall meetings.

The innovative approach is coordinated by the Alliance for Economic Success (AES), Manistee’s economic development non-profit. It is called the Understanding Wind Initiative (UWI). The first UWI report was recently released, and two more will be issued in the coming weeks.

A young woman enjoys the view from a utility-scale wind turbine in Germany.

First Answers
Some answers to the question of what local residents want emerged earlier this month when the first set of UWI findings were released: a summary of perceptions and opinions about windpower garnered from a daylong symposium involving volunteers living in the townships.

In the next few weeks, the UWI team will release the results of a survey of residents within the townships. And the UWI is also preparing a third report that will publish answers from experts to the more than 400 questions about the proposed project and wind power in general that residents from the two counties submitted in the early spring.

The UWI goal is to provide objective information and answers to questions about wind energy, and resources to township officials that will be helpful in developing zoning regulations and other community policies. The findings are being prepared on behalf of the townships, which are grappling with a completely unfamiliar task: crafting effective zoning ordinances to regulate utility-scale windpower development.

Answers to questions about zoning regulations will take somewhat longer, perhaps as long as six months, as the townships where the turbines would rise race to adopt new rules before the freezes three of them enacted on accepting wind turbine applications expire.

Roopali Phadke, a professor with Macalester College, who is coordinating a research team on behalf of UWI, said she hopes the information her group produces will help townships make informed decisions on zoning ordinances that control issues such as where to place the 500-ft.-tall machines to avoid problems.

“We will point to best practices in other communities, and each township will then have to make their own decisions on their zoning ordinances,” Professor Phadke said of her colleague’s research.

AES, which is funded by Manistee County, the City of Manistee, and private and foundation dollars, launched UWI in February, thanks to a $70,000 C.S. Mott Foundation grant. The Michigan Land Use Institute is a stakeholder and endorser of the initiative.

One Down, Two to Go
The report released last week by the Macalester researchers surveyed 21 residents from the four townships, and asked highly targeted questions about wind power.

The findings reveal strong support for independent studies on wind energy proposals at the township level that would address noise and setbacks—the distance a turbine must be from an adjacent property line. They also strongly supported wind developers’ ability to provide local jobs and economic growth, the need to protect wildlife, maximizing energy production within a wind farm, and setting fees proportional to local property taxes to stabilize revenues as local millage rates change over time.

The second report, which Tim Ervin, of Manistee’s Alliance, said would be released very soon, consists of more than 1,500 responses to amail-in survey that was mailed to all residents in the four townships.

“What we are doing is getting a sense of the public’s opinion,” said Phadke in an interview. “The surveys will tell us... what does the person on the street or property owner think?”

The UWI also conducted an online survey that will not be published in the UWI’s final report to the community. Duke Energy representative Gregory Efthimiou said the company has doubts about the online survey.

“Our initial concern is with the research methodology that the Understanding Wind Initiative is using for its community survey—specifically the anonymous online survey,” Mr. Efthimiou said. “Anonymous online surveys that can be taken by anyone, anywhere, cannot be considered scientifically valid or reliable, in part because they can be easily manipulated, despite the Understanding Wind Initiative’s assurances to the contrary.”

Macalester officials, however, insist there are adequate safeguards in place to protect the validity of the online survey.

Tim Ervin of the Understanding Wind Initiative said the mail survey results should be released soon.

“Our hope with that is that those results will be analyzed and compiled in a report that will be available in the next two to three weeks,” Mr. Ervin said of the mail-in survey, which was sent to 7,015 property owners in the four townships where Duke’s turbines might be built, as well as two additional, adjacent townships in Manistee County.

Part three of UWI’s attempt to determine what local residents want—answers to residents’ 400-plus questions about wind—is also a work in progress. Professor Phadke said Macalester is fully vetting its experts to make sure they are qualified to answer the questions. They will be from both academic and private sector backgrounds.

“We are looking at their professional history and their technical expertise that they have offered,” she said, noting that “it’s a huge challenge and there are some occasions where we may need more than one expert in each category.”

Mr. Ervin acknowledged that it might take until later in September to get the hundreds of questions answered.

“I think it’s more important for all of us to do a good, thorough job and get it right,” he said.

A Regulatory Patchwork
As UWI rolls out its reports over the next month or so, each of the four townships where Duke wants to erect turbines is in a different stage of dealing with the zoning ordinances needed to regulate the big project.

In Benzie County, Joyfield Township has no zoning regulations at all, while Blaine Township already has a wind ordinance in place—essentially the same ordinance Benzie County adopted more than a year ago, before budget cuts eliminated its planning and zoning department.

Earlier this year, Blaine Township’s officials imposed a moratorium on all wind project applications—including Duke’s project—in order to determine whether that ordinance is adequate.

In Manistee County, Pleasanton officials are now working on a draft windpower zoning ordinance, and its moratorium will end in October. Meanwhile, Manistee’s Arcadia Township recently extended its moratorium another six months.

Bradley Hopwood, a planning commission member for Arcadia Township, said he is encouraged by UWI’s work and believes his community will be able to use its research to implement a solid ordinance that is acceptable to most residents.

“The information they are going to provide is another tool in the toolbox for us,” said Mr. Hopwood, who noted his township already has controlling language in its zoning ordinance for wind energy systems.

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