Three wind turbines sit east of the Randy Saxton residence in Scottville. While supporters laud turbines as a clean energy source and boost to local economies, critics cite cluttered landscapes and “whooshing” noise. (John L. Russell / Special to The Detroit News)
Ludington — It's a conversation Randy Saxton tries to avoid at all costs because, frankly, it never leads anywhere good. It's hard to do that, however, because the subject — the massive wind turbines now towering over the area — is impossible to miss.
And everyone here has an opinion.
"Whoever you're talking to, they want you to be on their side of the issue," said Saxton, whose home south of Ludington is surrounded by turbines. "You've got one person, usually with a windmill on their property who's getting money for it, saying, 'Aren't they beautiful.' Then there's the other one, who doesn't have one, who feels they're ugly and has absolutely no use for it."
The disagreements over wind turbine farms in Michigan go far beyond aesthetics and have heightened in intensity to go beyond polite conversations. Wind power issues have led to showdowns in elections, public relations battles waged in rural communities and face-offs at local government meetings.
Interest in developing Michigan's wind energy capacity began in earnest late in 2008 when then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm signed legislation requiring the state to generate 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2015.
Prior to the legislation, the Michigan Public Service Commission was aware of 34 operational turbines in the state. Today, at least 288 of them are fully constructed and producing energy, but there are probably many more, since energy companies are not required to report new turbines.
As these farms have been proposed and constructed, troubles have inevitably risen.
In each instance, the issues are the same: The benefits of a clean energy source, boosts to local economies and employment rates are weighed against the nuisances created by turbines. Those include cluttered landscapes and noise described variously as a "whooshing," to that of music constantly played with a thudding bass to the sound of a helicopter. In addition, there is the shadow flicker effect — when turbine blades create moving shadows across a home or property.
Even though Consumers Energy's Lake Winds Energy Park is past the approval stage — with more than half of its 56 turbines constructed just south of Ludington — opponents were contesting it by promoting a slate of candidates in last week's elections.
A flier sent out by resident Evelyn Bergaila ahead of the election read: "If you think 5-story tall wind turbines in Mason County are '2 Tall — 2 Close — 2 Many,' vote for the following candidates to change the Board of Commissioners."
The massive turbines rise over the skyline here and are visible from a mile out on Lake Michigan aboard the SS Badger. But there is little that a new county commission could do to affect the project at this point.
"Lake Winds is a done deal," said Dan Bishop, the utility's public information director. "It will be fully online later this year, and we're moving forward with it."
Political opposition in the Ludington area may have come late in the game, but that has not been the case in two other areas in the state — both involving projects by North Carolina-based Duke Energy.
Energy company quits idea
For years, Duke had been backing a 100-turbine wind farm across Benzie and Manistee counties in the northwest portion of Michigan's Lower Peninsula. The project had a lot to recommend it to locals:
150 jobs created during the construction phase, and 20 to 25 long-term jobs.
A $10 million impact on local businesses during the year-long construction process.
Tax revenues of up to $68 million to Benzie and Manistee counties during the 25 years of the contract.
A total boost to the local economy of $200 million.
And then in January something happened.
Duke Energy scrapped the project, citing the company's inability to secure a long-term buyer for the energy its turbines would create. But a passage in the company's statement announcing the cancelation hinted at other issues.
"Without question, the proposed Gail Windpower Project was the catalyst for a tremendous amount of discussion about wind energy in the region; much of it was respectful and fact-based, some of it less so," said Milt Howard, Duke Energy Renewables' vice president, in the released statement.
Six months earlier in the face of opposition from several community groups and moratoriums on construction enacted by local governments, the company had reduced the areas where it planned to build its turbines.
Tonight, Duke Energy's other plans in Hillsdale County's Reading Township face their latest hurdle. Local officials have scheduled a public hearing to review recent changes to the township zoning ordinance — changes that affect how close turbines can be to local residences and how loud they can be.
Many in the community, including farmers who have agreed to lease their land to Duke, have backed the company's project for several years now. Payments are proprietary information, but one report concerning Duke's failed Benzie/Manistee project pegged the annual income for a landowner hosting a turbine at $1,400.
Others in Reading, including a large contingent of lakeside homeowners in the township's northern end, have formed an opposition movement.
As in Ludington, that movement put forward candidates for last Tuesday's election. Even after the votes were tallied, the atmosphere surrounding the turbine issue in the township remains toxic, according to some.
"It used to be a united community," said Peter Ronan, a member of Save Reading, which opposes changes that would allow Duke to build closer to homes. "But now, it's the lakers versus the farmers. They hate us, and we hate them. I don't even go into town anymore."
Some rally around idea
Gratiot County seems to have found a way to make this work. Twenty-five miles west of Saginaw lies Breckenridge — now home to Michigan's largest wind farm with 133 turbines. After years of planning that included extensive public involvement, the project from Chicago-based Invenergy came online in January with little of the vitriol Ronan sees in Reading.
"If you add up the gross revenue anticipated (from the first wind farm), for us it will mean the same economic impact of bringing in a new industrial operation with 50 well-paid employees," said Donald Schurr, president of Greater Gratiot Development Inc., the area's economic development arm. "There may be a small percentage of the population that is unsatisfied because they're hearing the turbines more than they want to or because of the flicker issue, but it's a very small percentage."
Building consensus for the project, Schurr said, began with making sure the first question addressed was: "Was this a project the community would entertain?"
The Invenergy project received enough of a positive reaction in Gratiot County that other companies have taken notice.
In January, Exelon Power gave up its attempt to take a 45-turbine wind farm to Lenawee County. The company's partner on the project, Consumers Energy, filed a petition with the Michigan Public Service Commission asking for permission to move its project. That petition made the reasons behind the decision clear.
"The developer has concluded it is unable to develop its project in Riga, Palmyra, and Ogden townships due to significant opposition to wind generation development by the residents of Lenawee County," Consumers officials stated in the petition. That opposition kept local elected officials from approving changes to zoning regulations that Consumers wanted.
Lenawee County's loss may be Gratiot County's gain. Exelon and Gratiot officials are discussing a new development that would take the aborted project to the same community that welcomed Invenergy's project.
"In some situations, there has been a backlash and that has gained a lot of publicity," said John Sarver, executive director of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association. "But there are a number of communities that have almost universally accepted these wind farms, and they're seeing the benefit of that.
"If things become difficult for a developer, there are plenty of other places they can go in Michigan."