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Small wind project in northern Michigan faces hurdles

Steve Smiley, project manager for the Northport turbine, on the ridge where the windmill will be built.
Photo by Bob Allen/Interlochen Public Radio
Steve Smiley, project manager for the Northport turbine, on the ridge where the windmill will be built.

by Bob Allen for The Environment Report

Big wind farms generate not just power but a lot of controversy. There’s been quite a debate in northern Michigan recently about the effects on safety, health, property values and the landscape. Smaller scale projects called community wind are designed to avoid those criticisms. But there are still roadblocks.

Northport is a picturesque village that sits near the tip of the Leelanau Peninsula. For the past two years, a group of residents there, mostly retirees, has been working to put up one small wind turbine.

Doug McInnis says the opportunity just about fell into their laps.

“There was this unique spot. There was a hill. And it’s near right where you want to put the energy. We’re right near a substation. I mean all these things come together and it just says, hey, this is a natural.”

The village owns the hill that rises just behind its new sewage treatment plant. From the hilltop, the turbine will supply half the electricity for the plant. It will be a fraction of the size of new commercial turbines.

State maps show that Leelanau Township has the best sites for wind energy in the Lower Peninsula.

McInnis says the group wants to do something now that will benefit their community for years to come.

“People are concerned about the future generations. And if we don’t start thinking and moving in other directions I don’t know what’s going to happen. It ain’t gonna be good.”

But moving in the direction of renewable energy even for a small village is not easy. The Northport energy group has some pretty impressive credentials, though.

McInnis is a former aerospace engineer. Another member is a retired automotive engineer.

They formed a private company and put up their own money to finance the turbine, along with more than a dozen other investors.

That allows them to use federal tax credits and incentives that would not be available to the village.

The investors expect to make their money back, plus four percent, in about ten years. After that, they’ll turn the windmill over to the village free and clear.

Then the turbine is expected to cut Northport’s energy bill by about $30,000 a year for at least ten years.

Despite the benefits of local owners generating clean energy and using it on site, community wind projects are rare in Michigan.

And Steve Smiley says it’s because the state makes them difficult to do.

“Every time we turn a corner someone’s putting up a wall in front of us.”

Smiley is the project manager for the Northport turbine.

He says, under state rules, there’s an incentive to keep these projects smaller by paying less for the electricity as the projects get bigger.

Originally, he wanted the Northport turbine to be twice as big but that meant less money for the electricity it would generate.

And Smiley says if state rules required a fair price for all community wind it be a lot easier to do.

“We wouldn’t have to go through tons and tons of paperwork and complications and have twenty or thirty people involved for a year just to try to do a piddly little project.”

But it’s not just state rules that stymie community wind. Sometimes local governments make it difficult. Emmet County, for instance, has a very strict noise limit for wind turbines.

That’s meant Chris Stahl had to jump through extra hoops to develop a small windmill for a farm and community kitchen near Cross Village. Stahl is president of Lake Effect Energy in Harbor Springs.

He was able to get around the county restriction by having neighboring landowners agree to a higher noise limit. But it means he has to install meters to keep track of sound at their property lines.

“We haven’t even broke ground on the project yet and we’re already over budget due to the sixteen month process to get the permits and also to buy the additional sound metering equipment.”

Stahl believes community wind will catch on as barriers are broken down and people see how it works.