Voters in Michigan’s Upper Thumb rejected proposals that would have allowed two wind farm projects to proceed in Huron county.
In referendum held May 2, 2017 voters defeated a proposal for a renewal energy project by DTE Energy extending just under 17,000 acres. 70 turbines would have been placed with landowners holding wind lease agreements with DTE in Lincoln, Sigel, Bloomfield and Dwight Township. (1,110 yes to 1,923 no) On the same ballot voters also defeated a proposed project by NextEra Energy Resources in Sherman and Sigel townships. (1,120 yes to 1,934 no)
Other communities voting to restrict wind development include Lincoln Township who will be forming its own planning commission and Sand Beach Township who passed a strict sound ordinance restriction that effectively prevents wind farm development in the township.
Huron County Michigan hosts the largest concentration of wind turbines in the Great Lakes region. Currently there are 443 turbines in operation with 29 more expected completed this year. The vote now prevents landowners in the 16 affected townships from working with wind farm developers on any new projects. The restriction affects Bingham, Bloomfield, Brookfield, Dwight, Fairhaven, Gore, Grant, Hume, Lincoln, McKinley, Rubicon, Sebewaing, Sheridan, Sherman, Sigel and Winsor townships. It’s unclear if new wind development projects will be planned in the other 12 townships.
The secessionists have hired attorney William Fahey of Okemos to request Lake and Chandler Townships form an arrangement utilizing Michigan Public Act 425 to conditionally transfer their properties to Chandler Township. This would allow energy companies such as DTE to use their land for wind energy development. If allowed, Lake Township’s area would shrink by 40% by ceding the land to Chandler Township. It’s also unclear if those not wishing to leave the township will be forced to also move to comply with the provision of contiguous borders outlined in the Act. The patch work of landowners who wish to succeed are denoted in Pink in the map below.
The issue will be discussed in a special meeting this evening, May 21st, at 7:30pm at the American Legion Hall at 4995 N. Caseville Road, Caseville, MI.
Since 2008 Michigan has been the developmental area for highly dense wind energy projects. Surrounded by Great Lakes wind, and fueled by a renewable target mandate, the state has been a target for wind energy development particularly in the Thumb region along Saginaw Bay, the shoreline of Lake Huron and in pockets of specific areas near Lake Michigan. This development is usually means that thousands of contiguous acres are targeted with ten’s or hundreds of wind turbines within established agricultural townships. The resulting effects on the rural communities have resulted in deep divides between neighbors and a patchwork of zoning regulations that are still playing out across this region. This approach is unsustainable in that future investment, even within existing wind farms may be impacted by this patchwork of overlay regulation and zoning. It’s clear that a new approach is needed and it must be coordinated to accommodate the general interests of the community while offering ongoing economic and environmental benefit to hosting renewable energy platforms.
The Three Prong Renewable Project Approach; Selective Siting, Engineer for Obsolesce and Invest in Storage Technologies.
Selective Siting for Wind Projects
The first and most pressing problem is the current “carpet bombing” of wind development within a geographic area. Developers, using wind data from survey towers will target large swaths of land typically consisting in 10-30,000 acres. To complicate matters these areas typically overlay multiple townships which may, or may not, have established zoning regulations. Local zoning consisting of setbacks and other rules of various forms will ultimately drive location selection. The result is a virtual “have” or “have not” patch work of wind lease holders who by mere luck be able to support a turbine development site. The results are deep splits in the project area with some getting a income windfall while others endure a perceived eyesore and get nothing. This scheme needs to be turned on its head to instead “Cherry Pick” specific defined areas whereby all land holders benefit from wind development in various degrees based on if they physically host the development on their land or are impacted as adjoining landowners or other factors. (Such as easement access) This ensures that all benefit and are part of the renewable energy solution. These “energy zones” could be incentivized by the state in similar fashion to economic zones. Community’s looking for economic opportunity could apply for such a status. This approach turns from a defensive posture today to one that developers know that they are being welcomed by the area.
Engineer Renewables for Replacement
The next element is the physical plant itself. Wind turbines are designed with a 20-25 year estimated life span as a capital asset. This means at the end of the life that the tower is removed from service or refurbished anew. Again, with the rapid advancement of technology and dropping costs in this sector we are resulting in inefficient and stranded resources as soon as they are built. Clearly what is needed is an engineering approach where it is expected that the generating technology will be updated or replaced several times within its physical lifespan. When this technology replacement occurs the opportunity is opened for the hosting landowner to re-negotiate the lease with new terms and payments. Need-less-to-say this window must also include the potential for removal and restoration of the site.
The Renewable Energy Storage Problem
The last element of this approach is the most problematic; energy storage technology. Despite showing success with its flywheel approach, the spectacular failure of companies like Beacon Power to bring to market energy storage technology has resulted in ongoing questions of the true long term viability of naturally harnessed power generation. Since renewables can only operate with active wind or sunlight, without a viable energy storage solution there can be no consideration of replacing or offsetting fossil fueled generation. However the bright spot is that if and when this technological hurdle is achieved, renewable energy will then become on the forefront of our solution to fossil fuel dependency and as a check on global warming.
The need for utilization of renewables is clear. However its implementation has been a ham handed approach that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, drove local government expense up with defensive zoning and adversely affected communities. A three prong method of incentivized selective siting, engineering for obsolesce and energy storage will serve to make renewables a more welcome economic option.
“The more than $100 billion that companies have invested in wind power in low-income counties—where about 70 percent of wind farms are located—has helped double assessed land values in some of the poorest parts of rural America.”
In a recent report by Bloomberg Businessweek it noted that “Wind energy, the fastest-growing source of electricity in the U.S., is transforming low-income rural areas in ways not seen since the federal government gave land to homesteaders 150 years ago.”
For some farmers, turbines spin off six-figure incomes that have allowed them to retire from farming altogether. However, this windfall his highly dependent wind conditions, location, local zoning, setback requirements and a bit of luck. In Huron County Michigan, turbine projects and placement has pitted neighbor vs. neighbor and nasty exchanges in the township halls have ensued. While each lease is confidential, Bloomberg noted that landowners who sign lease agreements with wind companies typically get between $7,000 and $10,000 per turbine each year.
“Before, I raised corn and soybeans and cattle. Now I don’t. I’m a wind farmer.”
In an analysis of the article by Tina Casey she noted, “The full impact of new wind turbines on local communities is a bit more mixed than the article represents, but it does underscore how the wind industry is playing a critical role rural economic development — without the high risks and impacts of fossil fuel extraction.”