Michigan bills to limit fights over wind farms
They are the epitome of a "not in my backyard" item: massive wind turbines whose blades can reach more than 300 feet into the sky. People want the clean energy they produce, but not the sight of them on their horizon or, for those closer by, the humming they generate.
As Michigan has tried to expand its renewable energy portfolio, wind turbine farms have cropped up around the state — mostly near shorelines. Many have been opposed by residents who don't want the structures nearby, leading to costly and lengthy court battles.
Two new bills making their way through the Michigan Senate seek to reduce the number of legal challenges to wind farms. Sen. Howard Walker, R-Traverse City, sponsored the legislation, which seeks to protect utilities and wind farm developers from "nuisance" lawsuits.
Walker was unsure if the legislation would get far enough for a vote before the end of the year. But if not, he felt it was likely to come up in some form in 2015.
It's a sticky issue with several competing interests. Michigan is under a self-imposed mandate to have its energy producers getting at least 10 percent of their power from renewable sources by the end of 2015.
Power companies want to avoid as many legal entanglements as possible when siting and installing their wind farms. And environmental groups, which often find themselves siding with individual homeowners in cases involving power companies, are caught in between.
"In 2008, we passed the state's renewable energy portfolio standard," Walker said. "It was a mandate, but it certainly wasn't our intention to mandate nuisances into existence."
Walker sees wind companies in a position similar to farms that abut residential areas and are targeted by lawsuits over nuisance odors and noise. His bills essentially would exempt those who own and operate wind turbines from such suits as long as they comply with local and state ordinances.
"If (the companies) comply with these standards with regard to setback and noise, then they would have some legal protection," Walker said.
Those noise and proximity issues have been at the heart of a lawsuit out of Mason County, where neighbors of Consumers Energy's Lake Winds Energy Park have complained of sleeplessness, headaches, dizziness, nausea, stress and fatigue since the project came online two years ago. That case remains unsettled.
Saginaw-based attorney Craig Horn represents the homeowners and said the attempt to treat wind farms like agricultural operations is misguided. Just because both operations use the word "farm," he said, that doesn't make them comparable.
"There have been rumblings about this kind of approach before," Horn said. "(Power companies) have enough political clout to get it done — more than anyone else can bring together to oppose them."
Officials with Consumers Energy offered little comment on the proposed legislation itself.
"With strong cooperation from local leadership, Consumers Energy has successfully sited and completed its first two wind parks, in Mason and Tuscola counties," the company said in an emailed response to questions. "Our wind park in Mason County began operating in 2012. Our wind park in Tuscola County will begin this month, allowing us to meet by one year ahead of time the state's 10 percent renewable energy standard.
"Working with local communities has been an important part our success in siting wind energy. We do not have a position on (Walker's legislation). We look forward to working with policymakers at all levels on Michigan's next energy plan."
James Clift, policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, expressed the dilemma the issue poses for his group.
"We're definitely not in the camp that wants to pre-empt local control of these developments," he said. "Local government should have a say in how and where wind turbine facilities get built. But we also feel that these communities shouldn't simply be able to say no.
"If a developer is willing to move forward utilizing best practices, they should be able to move forward."
For many communities, ensuring best practices requires establishing local ordinances that cover all of the aspects of wind farm development that are likely to cause issues down the road. Having those rules on the books before wind companies come calling, Clift said, is key.
When wind development began in earnest a few years ago, many communities were caught off-guard by the sudden interest from outside developers. Mason County is a good example. On Tuesday, members of the county planning commission continued to discuss changes to its wind farm ordinance, despite the arrival of Lake Winds Energy Park almost two years ago.