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Wednesday, November 10,2010

Winds of change

The future of wind energy in Michigan looks good — but what’s standing in its way?

by Andy Balaskovitz

This story was corrected Nov. 10.


Friday, Nov. 5 — Michigan is poised to be a top-tier wind energy producer in the United States. But standing in its way is a “vocal minority” who are concerned about how commercial wind farms look, sound and affect wildlife.

That’s the view of John Sarver, who just retired as a renewable energy specialist at the state Department of Energy, Labor and Economic Growth. About 20 people gathered at Central United Methodist Church in downtown Lansing today to hear Sarver offer a roadmap to Michigan’s wind energy production.

Michigan’s offshore waters and the Thumb offer prime areas for wind development, Sarver said.

“There’s a significant amount of resources here,” Sarver said. “The offshore potential is actually huge.”

The reasons for wind energy are simple: It’s cleaner for the air than burning coal, reduces the need to import our energy and, most important, Sarver said, it makes for predictable energy prices. It’s also a means to cut back on contentious fossil fuel use.

“Think of the volatility in oil, natural gas and coal prices,” he said. “That’s risky.”

There are about 100 turbines throughout the state generating 163 megawatts of power. To meet a goal set forth by the U.S. Department of Energy during the former President George W. Bush years, which says 20 percent of all electricity can be generated by wind by 2030, Michigan would need to up production to about 10,000 megwatts.

“I don’t think that will be a problem,” Sarver said.

Michigan is especially poised to benefit if auto manufacturing jobs change to wind-turbine manufacturing jobs.

“Michigan is in the top tier (of states) of where jobs would materialize. There are definite implications for our manufacturing sector,” Sarver said, referring to the fact that wind turbines are made up of about 8,000 different components, made of basically the same materials as car parts.

However, not all places in the state are ideal for commercial wind farms, such as Ingham County and the surrounding region, due to the comparatively low amount of wind speed. Also, a “vocal minority” is quick to point out that noise, visual and avian wildlife threats should keep us from rushing into wind energy production.

While this “minority” has a point, Sarver said, most of the complaints are either arbitrary or based on unsound or unfinished science. For instance, people from West Michigan say they don’t like the way wind turbines look in Lake Michigan, bird migratory patterns are still being studied, and scientists disagree on whether living near large wind turbines is detrimental to mental health.

“When planning commercial wind farms, you need to study a lot of issues,” Sarver said.

As wind development unfolds, Sarver said planning and zoning issues have to be dealt with by townships. This will likely result in ordinances that address small scale and large scale wind production separately while considering road set-back, audio, safety and visual issues.

Incentives from major utilities, including the Lansing Board of Water and Light, are designed to spur renewable energy production on a residential level.

Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison, two of the state’s major utilities, have pilot programs in place that offer incentives to its ratepayers who generate renewable energy at home. Basically, if you’re generating power from your house, typically through solar means, the utility pays you for electricity that goes back into the grid. These are policies popular in Europe, called Feed-In Tariffs.

The average customer pays about 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, Sarver said. However, Consumers pays Sarver 65 cents for every kilowatt-hour he puts back in the grid.

During this time of year, Sarver typically gets an electricity bill for $120 and also a credit for about $50. He uses polycrystalline photovoltaic solar panels.

Sarver recommends contacting local planning officials if you plan on starting small-scale renewable energy production. Out of the more than 1,200 townships in the state, “at least” 100 have “something written in the books” that address these issues, he said.

The Mid-Michigan Environmental Action Council, or Mid-MEAC, hosted the event as part of its First Friday Land Use Luncheon series.

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