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Up in the air

Debates over the future of wind power in Michigan rev up

Photo: Tera Holcomb
Jason Corvidae of Detroit’s WARM Training Center.
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Curt Guyette discusses wind power on WDET. (MP3)
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Published 5/5/2010

Two recent events in the Detroit area represent what might be described as the yin and the yang of an issue expected to play a significant role in Michigan's environmental and economic future: wind power.

First there was the Michigan Wind Energy Conference, held in late April at Cobo Center. Among the highlights of the two-day gathering was an appearance by Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who came to tell a crowd of more than 700 hundred industry representatives, policymakers and environmental activists just how "bullish" she is on the idea of making Michigan a center of the wind industry.

The state, she said, can make a transformation from the "rust belt" to the "green belt" by aggressively pursuing policies that promote clean energy alternatives to the burning of fossil fuels. Along with solar, geothermal, biofuels and conservation programs, a key piece of this transformation is the rapidly expanding wind-energy sector.

Bolstered by passage of a law two years ago that requires the state's utilities to produce 10 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2015, and aided by millions of dollars in federal stimulus money, Michigan is well-positioned, the governor asserted.

"We want to become the nation's place to manufacture the solutions to eliminating our reliance, or reducing our reliance, on foreign oil and fossil fuels," Granholm said.

Granted, she got a little carried away when she repeated an observation attributed to some unnamed source that Michigan could be considered the "Saudi Arabia of the wind industry."

A more realistic assessment is that Michigan, when compared to other states in America, is ranked 14th in wind-energy potential by the American Wind Energy Association. But that still puts us ahead of 36 other states. 

Our preternaturally chipper governor didn't make mention of the fact that, despite its No. 14 ranking in wind energy potential, the state is ranked only 26th in terms of wind energy actually produced. Neither did she mention that, with a peak production of about 20,000 megawatts an hour from all the state's electric power sources, Michigan's wind energy industry produces only 144 megawatts. 

One megawatt per hour can satisfy the electrical needs of between 250 to 300 homes. So, the bottom line is that wind power in Michigan is still in its infancy.

But, if you are looking to accentuate the positive, that means there's abundant opportunity to grow that sector of our economy.

And those inclined to look for such silver linings can find one in this black cloud of despair: as a consequence of the auto industry's implosion, the state has a highly skilled workforce in desperate need of jobs, and plenty of idle factories that can be converted from making auto parts to manufacturing components for wind turbines.

"Michigan is going to be the place that solves the problems," Granholm said. "That's what we have done in the past for the auto industry and others, and it's what we are going to do for the clean energy industry.

"We are positioned to make this happen."

The flipside of that vision showed itself a few weeks later, when a few hundred people crowded into the ballroom of the Grosse Pointe War Memorial on the first Monday night in May to hear presentations and air their views about a proposal to place wind turbines on the Ontario side of Lake St. Clair.

Judging from the questions and comments, few of those in attendance favorably view the prospect of 165 massive turbines twirling on the beautiful lake that shimmered on the other side of the ballroom's plate glass windows.

Attendees at the town hall meeting convened by state Rep. Tim Bledsoe (D-Grosse Pointe) expressed concerns about the feasibility of placing so many turbines on a relatively small lake. Much was made of how unsightly they would be, even if they'd be five miles in the distance.

Bledsoe, sporting cuff links decorated with what appeared to be tiny sailboats, observed that the proposal is nebulous at this point, but noted that the "danger" is "looming" and that fellow concerned citizens needed to be "vigilant."

More than once, he encouraged people to take note of a piece of blue tape — placed across windows overlooking the lake — supposedly showing the level at which the turbines would be visible.

Serious concerns were raised about the adequacy of Lake St. Clair Shores winds and potential risk to drinking water from contaminants in lake sediment that would be stirred up.

No one in the crowd, however, voiced concern about the multitude of health and environmental problems associated with continuing to burn coal to generate electricity, and the tremendous impact CO2 emissions from those plants have on global warming. 

Although there were questions about government subsidies for wind power, no one in the crowd pointed out that, according to a report issued last year by the National Academy of Sciences, coal burning power plants in the United States inflict more than $62 billion a year in "hidden costs." Those costs include damages done to crop and timber yields as well as the costs of illness and thousands of premature deaths. 

The potential risk to birds and bats was pointed out, but no mention was made of the 29 miners who perished last month in a West Virginia disaster, or the hundreds of other coal miners who died in mine accidents between 1990 and 2009. The estimated 10,000 miners who have died from black lung disease over the past decade likewise received no mention.

It could well be true that the Lake St. Clair project won't produce enough electricity to justify the investment or environmental tradeoffs, but the focus on parochial concerns — "The first question should be, 'what is the impact on recreational boaters,'" said one man at the meeting — without mention at all of how such a scheme could be part of a larger plan to reduce the world's dangerous dependence on fossil fuels indicates just how difficult it can be to get local buy-in on transformative visions.

The meeting also provided a prime example of how not to pursue a project. For starters, representatives from both the company floating the project idea and the Canadian government failed to make an appearance.

If the Grosse Pointe slapdown were an isolated occurrence, it might be possible to chalk up the opposition to the fact that Lake St. Clair is a unique part of the Great Lakes basin, and these were mostly Americans expressing concern about a Canadian project that would provide them with a host of possible problems and little direct benefit.

But, as Richard Mertens reported in a March 1 article for the Christian Science Monitor, the same sort of pushback is occurring on the other side of Michigan as well.

Mertens had recently visited the small resort town of Pentwater, located in Oceana County on Lake Michigan's eastern shore. There he interviewed Juanita Pierman, the village president, about a Norwegian-American company's proposal to put as many as 200 wind turbines several miles offshore.

"People are very up in arms about this," Pierman told the reporter, explaining why the Village Council passed a resolution opposing the plan, which would have provided enough electricity to power 300,000 homes.


Green vs. Green

Keith Schneider is a guy who wears many hats. A longtime journalist who worked as a national correspondent for the New York Times, he founded the Michigan Land Use Institute in western Michigan's Benzie County in the early 1990s after moving to the area and discovering the terrible toll then-Gov. John Engler's industry-friendly policies regarding natural gas drilling were taking on the environment. 

While pursuing a career as an environmental activist, he continued to work as a reporter (including authoring a number of stories for this paper.) These days, he is director of media and communications at the nonprofit U.S. Climate Action Network based in Washington, D.C. He's also been working part time as a consultant to the publicly owned Traverse City Light & Power utility, which had met fierce opposition to its plan to begin generating some of its electricity by burning wood biomass.

Just as that project divided the Traverse City area environmental community, says Schneider, he's seeing a schism among environmentalists when it comes to other forms of renewable energy. 

"The environmental community on a national level is pushing like hell for more clean energy," he says. "I know that because I work in Washington and I see it happening. But what I also see happening in places all around the country is local affiliates of those national organizations pushing back" against local renewable energy projects.

When it comes to the big picture, he says, the need to make a transition to clean energy is clearly seen. On the other hand, when it comes to individual projects, environmentalists living in areas directly affected can frequently be heard saying, "'Not here, not here, not here.' It's been happening everywhere. And what's been surprising is the ferocity of the attacks."

"I keep asking my environmental friends, 'What happens if you win?'"

And then he answers his own question: "What you get is more coal."

If there's one thing everyone seems to agree on, it is this: When it comes to addressing the dual problems of dependence on foreign oil and the growing concern over the effects burning carbon-based fuel has on climate change, "there is no silver bullet." 

On his blog (modeshift.org) Schneider has been writing about this issue a lot lately, tracking the phenomenon as it manifests itself in different parts of the country.

He's taken note of a "developing struggle in the Mojave Desert," where environmental activists are "revving up local opposition to a [750-megawatt] solar facility." 

"Any major technology that comes down the pike is going to have consequence," says Schneider. "There are risks and benefits to everything. And it is important to understand the consequences and mitigate the risks."

But if your only response is to fight change now and wait for something better to come along, he contends, the consequence of that will be that you let the Chinese capture new green energy markets as polar ice caps continue to melt.

Part of the issue, asserts journalist Tim Dickinson in the May 2010 issue of Outside magazine is that "alternative energy is no longer alternative. It's big business, backed by giants like Bechtel and Goldman Sachs."

That, he contends, is a positive development. 

"If the U.S. is going to break its dependence on coal and oil," Dickinson writes, "we're going to need massive renewable energy projects and all the capitalist spirit we can muster."

Like Schneider, he sees leadership of big national environmental organizations accepting this as reality. The costs of local projects that negatively affect specific natural habitats are outweighed by "unchecked pollution and rising global temperatures [that] will decimate the wild world ..."

Just how strong the tug of war between those two forces — the desire to protect pristine local wildlife and vistas vs. the recognized need to address global climate change — can be seen in the nearly decade-long fight to install 130 turbines six miles off of Cape Cod in Massachusetts.

Among the opponents of that project were both the recently deceased liberal icon Sen. Ted Kennedy and his nephew Robert Kennedy Jr., legal director of the Natural Resources Defense Counsel and one of this nation's leading environmentalists.

Last week, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced the Obama administration's approval of the project. Even so, experts predicted that legal challenges would keep the battle going.


From both sides

James Clift is a longtime environmentalist who's able to see both sides of the argument. The policy director of the Michigan Environmental Council, he's also a member of the state-created Great Lakes Wind Council, which is responsible for helping move the state's offshore wind energy program forward.

The way he sees it, the state has been doing a better job of developing solar and advanced battery technology while "kind of lagging behind other states when it comes to wind power."

Clift credits Gov. Granholm with attempting to develop Michigan's offshore wind industry, but the pace has been anything but rapid. In an apparent attempt to justify her cautious approach, the governor said at the conference in April, "It can't be done in a willy-nilly way." 

"I wouldn't say we're moving full speed ahead," says Clift. "But at least we are in gear, and moving forward."

One advantage to the measured approach happening on the American side is reducing the kind of opposition on display at the Grosse Pointe War Memorial.

The council has been carefully evaluating what offshore areas have the most wind energy potential so that companies will know in advance where the state will support projects. Along with the quality of the wind, the group, according to its website, has also been evaluating "cultural resources, habitat, and other environmental data."

Having done that, it is just now wrapping up a series of public meetings to gain citizen input. Another aspect of its mission is the drafting of proposed legislation that outlines regulations for the leasing of state-owned lakebed to offshore wind farms, including how those facilities will be operated, the rents and royalties that will be paid, and what the state should do with the income.

"We're trying to get all our ducks in a row," is the way Clift describes the situation. "We're hoping that the Legislature and the utilities will follow up with the realization that Michigan has a big opportunity to put manufacturing back to work."

In Clift's view, the environmental advantages of wind power are clear-cut. "It's not even close," he says. "The environmental damage that occurs in this state from relying on coal is massive."

He doesn't expect that argument to win over everyone; what should convince everyone, he says, is the economics of it all. For starters, there's the fact all the coal and uranium Michigan uses to fuel its power plants, as well as most of the natural gas, are imported from other states. Meaning Michigan is seeing billions of dollars a year flow out across its borders.

Utilizing wind power and other renewable fuel sources will help keep some of that money at home. Beyond that, because the massive utility-size wind turbines are very expensive to transport, there is a big incentive to manufacture them as close as possible to where they will eventually be installed.

It is, says Clift, an undeniably appealing package: Cleaner energy with reduced health and environmental costs, and the opportunity to put people back to work while reducing the amount of money spent on importing fuel.

The problem is getting people to absorb that knowledge.

"The biggest challenge we face is one of education," says Conan Smith, executive director of the Michigan Suburbs Alliance. "People still consider this a fanciful idea. They haven't yet wrapped their heads around the potential.

"What we need is a culture shift."

In some areas, that's already occurring.

John Sarver of the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth points out that the village of Pigeon, in the thumb area's Huron County, has truly "embraced" the 32-turbine wind farm that has been there since 2007.

"The Village of Pigeon is very happy to invite you to see these marvels," is the offer extended on the community's website.

The cost of electricity produced by large-scale land-based wind farms is about twice as much as that produced by existing coal-fired plants, Sarver says. But the wind power is competitive with the cost of electricity that would come with newly built coal plants, and is cheaper than electricity from new nuclear facility.

On a much smaller scale, the city of Wyandotte downriver from Detroit is pursuing plans to install five turbines on a brownfield site.

Jim French, assistant to the general manager for Wyandotte Municipal Services, touts the project as an environmentally friendly way to provide clean energy while utilizing a site that would require expensive cleanup if attempts were made to use it for other purposes.

In some cases though, municipal bureaucracy is an impediment to innovation.


Spinning wheel

Among those making a presentation at that conference where Gov. Granholm provided the keynote speech was Jacob Corvidae, Green Programs Manager at Detroit's WARM Training Center, a nonprofit that specializes in sustainable community development, energy conservation, and green building.

Corvidae was on hand to provide a cautionary tale.

Folks at his nonprofit thought it would be a good idea to install a small turbine on the roof of the group's Michigan Avenue headquarters.

Not much energy production was expected, he said, because Detroit, for the most part, "is pretty lousy for wind." Nonetheless, it would still be a useful tool for demonstrating a small-scale turbine.

"We were trying to do the right thing, and we thought this would be a pretty simple thing to do," he said as he began his presentation. "It turned out do me more difficult that we imagined."

It took nearly two years.

The problem, he said, was that the idea of issuing a permit for such a device was "foreign territory" for the city. With no one having applied for such a permit before, the city didn't have an established process for dealing with such a request.

The Detroit Science Center, he noted, would also like to install a small turbine but is also getting tangled up in red tape.

If an organization of the Science Center's stature is having so many problems, he suggested, how much harder would it be for a homeowner to try to get approval?

Vicki Harding, a partner at the Pepper Hamilton law firm, joined Corvidae for his presentation. She said the permitting difficulties on the municipal level could be equated to the early days of the cell phone industry, a time when municipalities were dealing with a novel issue.

It is an issue many communities across the area are just beginning to sort out.

John Sarver, the Michigan Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth official who was on hand Monday night to answer questions at the War Memorial town hall meeting, says he isn't discouraged by the amount of opposition shown to the possibility of turbines being placed on the Ontario side of Lake St. Clair.

He saw it as an opportunity to talk with Michigan residents about the benefits of wind power.

"It's not unusual for people to have questions and concerns," he says. "And there's always going to be a certain number of people, no matter what you tell them, who will be opposed to change. But what we have to do is keep getting the facts out."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-804 or cguyette@metrotimes.com.

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