A community divided: Southern Michigan wind project faces opposition
Wheatland Township, Mich. — The rush by power companies in Michigan to replace carbon-based fuel with wind power is running smack up against local residents who are saying, “not in my backyard.”
In Hillsdale County’s Wheatland Township, a wind turbine development that looks like a done deal is facing backlash from residents who worry the project will destroy property values, add to noise pollution and affect local artesian wells.
"Our community right now is very divided," said Wheatland Township Supervisor Dave Stone. "And I think there's hard feelings for some people.”
There’s an urgency to moving forward with the project — Consumers Energy needs work to start by Dec. 31 to qualify for millions of dollars in federal tax credits.
The incentives are driving a wind turbine boom across the country. The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2019 there will be the highest amount of wind capacity added to the country's electricity grid since 2012 as developers look to qualify for the federal Production Tax Credit.
And in nearly every case, wind developments are being challenged by local residents.
In Hillsdale County, an anti-wind development group planned to sue Wheatland Township over the planned 60-turbine project in Wheatland and neighboring Adams and Moscow townships, but realized it didn't have enough money to move forward with the suit.
"If they had just done it fair and just put people on the board that didn't have the conflict of interest and voted it through, okay, that's different," Wheatland Township resident Chris Pollard said. "But no, they're just shoving it down our throat."
Stone said the township and local schools could use their cut of the about $22 million of tax revenue the wind developer expects to be generated in Hillsdale County from the turbines and connected infrastructure.
The wind developer also has promised to repair any roads it uses while constructing wind turbines, Stone said.
But that's not enough to assuage residents concerned that wind turbines will destroy their rural quality of life.
Pollard, a six-year resident, founded Informed Citizens of Wheatland Township in August when he learned a wind turbine would go up near his house. The group now has more than 110 members.
"I got a letter at my house on July the first of this year ... come to find out there's going to be one right behind my house. A 500-foot wind turbine," Pollard said. "And it's like, well, wait a minute."
Pollard said he opposes the wind development because he believes it would ruin the area's artesian wells and kill bats and birds.
Township officials denied the group’s appeal of its decision to grant conditional-use land permits to the Crescent Wind project. The opponents contend the local government is conflicted because some officials have leased land for turbines.
Township officials said they followed proper procedure. Stone says township officials with a financial conflict have recused themselves from the decision-making process.
The project has been in development for nearly 10 years and has strong support, according to Invenergy, a Chicago-based energy development company that is selling the wind project to Consumers Energy when finished.
The project is expected to contribute an estimated $65 million over 25 years to the Hillsdale County economy, support 250 construction jobs and create a still undetermined number of full-time operations and maintenance positions, said Invenergy Senior Analyst Ben Lambrecht.
"Invenergy has worked openly and transparently with community members, townships and the county during (the past 10 years)," Lambrecht said. "The project went through several regulatory review processes, all of which were open to the public, and received unanimous approval each time."
The proliferation of wind projects has faced backlashes elsewhere in the state.
Huron County in Michigan's thumb area imposed a moratorium on wind farms in 2015. A wind-energy project in an Upper Peninsula community announced that it’s decided to stop development of a project in April in the face of delays and opposition.
But utilities continue to pursue projects. Consumers Energy is expanding its Cross Winds Energy Park in Tuscola County in the thumb. DTE energy has an agreement to take ownership of a yet-to-be-completed Polaris wind project in Gratiot County.
Wind boom projected
The wind farm project in Hillsdale County is one of seven wind farm projects under development in Michigan according to the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates the state's electricity and gas utilities.
The U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that in 2019 there will be the highest amount of wind capacity added to the country's electricity grid since 2012 as developers look to qualify for the federal Production Tax Credit.
The Crescent Wind Project will help Consumers Energy achieve state-mandated renewable energy requirements as well as the company's own renewable energy goals, said utility spokesman Terry DeDoes. The Jackson-based utility has pledged to reduce carbon dioxide emissions more than 90% by 2040 in part by developing more wind and solar energy.
Developers will need to build larger and more efficient wind turbines, comparable in size to midsized skyscrapers, improve grid infrastructure and make anticipated improvements in battery storage "for wind to realize its full potential, said Steve Transeth a former Michigan public service commissioner.
But first they face local resistance that often manifests itself in zoning ordinances that limit where they can be placed.
"There is going to be a pushback. There's no question about that," said Transeth, founder and principle partner of Transeth and Associates, which provides legal and consulting services in energy and utility law.
Pollard argues that the decision-making process in Wheatland Township has been tainted and that the situation is "big money talkin'."
"We're just a poor community. How can we fight big business (developing wind)? We can't," he said. "If (the township government) would have done the vote correctly in the first place, we wouldn't have had a leg to stand on."
One of the five township board members and four of the seven planning commission members have signed land leases with Invenergy and recused themselves from votes related to the matter, Stone said.
"You've got to understand something about this town: anybody who has a sizable portion of land in our town has signed a lease," Stone, the township supervisor said. "We figure people have the right to do what they want on their own land, but we're not going to choose a side in the matter."
If the wind project is built, Pollard said he plans on moving.
"Personally, I have a medical issue and I don't see me living in this type of environment," he said. "I never signed up for this. I never knew about it when I bought this house.”