Wind turbines at a commercial wind farm near Brownsville, Wis. This wind farm includes more than 80 large-scale turbines. Wind farms similar to these are now being proposed for sites in Michigan, including Houghton County. Click on photos for larger versions. (Photos © 2010 by Katharine T. Alvord)*
By Katie Alvord*
HANCOCK -- Large-scale commercial wind power is coming to Michigan -- and maybe coming fast.
That’s one reason Michigan State University’s Land Policy Institute (LPI) has hosted two recent meetings at Hancock’s Jutila Center about commercial wind farms. On March 15, LPI environmental sociologist David Bidwell and renewable energy manager Charles McKeown led their second wind power meeting here in less than a month.
According to Bidwell, the meetings are part of an "integrated assessment" to learn what people think of commercial wind farm development in coastal areas of Michigan. This study, funded by Michigan Sea Grant and W.K. Kellogg Foundation, is visiting three regions of the state: part of the thumb; Presque Isle County at the tip of the mitten; and Houghton, Keweenaw, Baraga and Marquette counties in the Upper Peninsula.
"What we’ve been doing is going out and giving people information, but also trying to learn what they think, as well," Bidwell said.
The centerpiece of both meetings was a presentation given by McKeown about commercial wind energy in Michigan. The state ranks 14th in the nation for wind energy potential, but so far has done little to tap this source. Right now, McKeown said, three commercial wind farms operate downstate. None exist in the U.P., but three -- including one in Houghton County -- have been proposed.
McKeown’s talk focused exclusively on commercial wind, as opposed to residential windmills or community wind projects. Commercial wind farms, he said, generally consist of 15 to 300 very large wind machines, with 1.5 to 2 megawatt (MW) turbines mounted on towers that can be nearly 400 feet high. The total height of these installations can reach 550 feet.
The turbines are based on large concrete foundations.
Guest writer Katie Alvord, author of this article, stands at the base of a commercial-scale wind tower.*
"In sandy soils like you have up here," McKeown noted, "some of these can run as much as 50 feet deep, of concrete and rebar, to keep the tower vertical."
In 2008 and 2009, wind energy accounted for more than 40 percent of the new generating capacity added to the U.S. grid. In fact, McKeown reported, the U.S. now leads the world in commercial wind energy installations. This growth in the industry has shifted the nature of the business, he explained.
"It is no longer run essentially by the sustainability movement," he said. "It has shed that. It has become big business and so it is aggressive."
According to McKeown, the state’s high potential for profitable wind energy is one reason the industry has its eye on Michigan. New laws have also created pressure for commercial wind development -- such as Public Act 295 of 2008, which creates a Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS). This law mandates that ten percent of Michigan’s retail electricity must come from renewable energy by 2015.
In addition, demand for electricity in Michigan has grown recently despite declines in both population and manufacturing.
"The profusion of little electric doodads and computers and large-screen TVs … are causing electric power demand to keep increasing in the state," McKeown said.
He noted big-screen TVs are about five times less efficient than old cathode-ray tube TV sets.
Despite these pressures, there are some factors that could slow commercial wind power development here in the U.P. One such factor, said McKeown, is a lack of adequate transmission lines to ship the wind-generated electricity to urban markets.
"The U.P. is basically kind of running on extension cords," he commented, referring to this lack of modern high-voltage transmission capacity.
McKeown also detailed the steps involved in establishing a wind farm, from acquiring land rights to procuring equipment to gaining approvals. And when it comes to actual construction, the huge components of wind turbines can create logistical challenges.
"The blades can vary from about 120 feet to about 180 feet long," he said. "Putting these guys on trucks causes a lot of fun when you move them … you just don’t move these around during the day or during peak traffic."
New road construction is required to access and maintain the tower sites, and county roads can suffer during construction, McKeown added.
"A lot of these are in rural areas and the roads just aren’t designed for the machinery that’s going on them," he said.
The presentation also ran through a list of the impacts of commercial wind farms.
"The visual effects are one of the flashpoint issues with wind turbines in local communities," McKeown said. "In rural landscapes or remote landscapes, they tend to be a rather large-scale industrial intrusion."
A "Danger" sign warns of high voltage near large commercial wind turbines.*
Noise has also been a problem.
"Wind turbines do make noise, make no mistake," McKeown said. "So in most of these rural areas, which are quiet areas, that noise becomes a serious concern for people."
Some have developed symptoms including sleep disturbance, headaches, ear pressure, vertigo, nausea, blurred vision and other problems when exposed to turbine noise. A New York physician, Dr. Nina Pierpont, has written a book called Wind Turbine Syndrome which describes case studies of this condition. She suggests a link between these symptoms and low frequency noise from turbines.
An opposing study sponsored by the American Wind Energy Association and the Canadian Wind Energy Association concluded that there is no evidence that wind turbine noise has direct physiological effects. However, it did indicate that some people are annoyed by wind turbine noise and this annoyance can have physical health impacts.
McKeown also mentioned wildlife issues. Bird kills by wind power are well known, he said, but changes in tower construction and siting have reduced them considerably. Today, both the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club support wind energy, as long as it is properly sited.
Bat kills might prove a bigger problem, McKeown reported, but not because bats collide with wind towers or turbine blades.
"When the blade passes the tower … there’s a low compression wave that comes out from in between the blade and the tower, and that actually pops the bats’ lungs if they’re too close to it," he said.
Management of wind farms to avoid or repel bats can reduce this, he added.
McKeown ended his presentation with economics. Wind farms will add to the local tax base, he said, and will create jobs, mostly in construction. For instance, LPI estimates that building 494 wind turbines in Calumet Township would create 100 short-term construction jobs, and seven ongoing maintenance jobs.
Calumet Township has the highest wind development potential in Houghton County, LPI has calculated, followed by Hancock Township, Stanton Township and Osceola Township. All other Houghton County townships have low wind development potential, while all Keweenaw County townships have a very high potential.
Most studies have found that, in general, wind farms don’t seem to affect property values. McKeown added, however, that individual properties have lost value if a turbine is too close to a house, or if there is shadow flicker -- repetitive shadows caused by the turning of turbine blades in front of the sun, which is easily preventable with zoning.
"From a local zoning perspective, you just say you’re not allowed to do it," McKeown said. "Most areas that are unzoned in the state decide to zone because of something like this."
Without zoning, he noted, a local area has no control over a wind developer’s actions.
David Bidwell, who coordinated the information-gathering part of the program, distributed questionnaires to attendees before and after McKeown’s March 15 presentation. Answers from these will be added to other information collected by the team, including feedback gathered at a Feb. 22, 2010, meeting in Hancock. At that event, audience comments ranged from positive -- noting the cleaner air, greenhouse gas reductions and energy independence to be gained from wind farms -- to negative -- with loss of wildlife habitat, noise and loss of community control among possible problems. Several participants expressed a preference for residential and community-scale wind development, rather than large commercial wind farms.
The integrated assessment team also gathered information in Marquette on their trips to the U.P. A final report will be written later this year. It is intended to help shape wind energy policy at both the state and local level.
* This article and photos are © Copyright 2010 by Katharine T. Alvord. First North American Serial Rights. Printed with permission.