Wind power facts fallacies analyzed in GVSU project

July 17, 2009
| By Pete Daly |
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Four faculty members at Grand Valley State University are going to undertake a study of potential conflicts in response to proposals to erect commercial wind turbines in coastal areas of Muskegon, Ottawa and Allegan counties.

Many people in West Michigan are interested in the potential for manufacturing commercial wind turbine components here, "but we also have to put them someplace," said Erik Nordman, coordinator of the GVSU Natural Resources Management Program and principal investigator for the study that just received $139,912 in funding from Michigan Sea Grant.

"We want to make sure these things get sited in appropriate places — if they get sited at all. We're not advocates (of wind power). We're trying to be impartial but just looking at all the different aspects of it," said Nordman.

The GVSU project team also includes John Koches, senior program manager at Annis Water Resources Institute; Kurt Thompson, research associate with AWRI; and Paul Isely, associate professor of economics.

Michigan Sea Grant is a combination of funds from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state of Michigan. The GVSU study will examine the issues surrounding wind farms, which include environmental, social, economic, aesthetic and public policy concerns.

Nordman said the goal of the project, which is scheduled for completion by May 2011, is to help communities avoid conflicts over wind energy development.

“There are a lot of benefits to wind power such as mitigating climate change and reducing coal or natural gas imports from other states,” said Nordman. “But, challenges include how wind turbines might affect tourism and the environment, like birds and bats.”

The findings of the study will be available to government representatives, environmental advocates, business groups and residents. It will only focus on utility-scale wind turbines, said Nordman, not the small ones some homeowners are now buying to reduce their reliance on the local power companies.

Nordman said the group will compile data from many sources, regarding many different aspects of commercial electrical generation from wind turbines. Those range from the state of the technology today and the economics behind it, to precise data on the environmental impacts and the public's perceptions — and misconceptions — regarding commercial wind farms.

"Stakeholders" will be invited to participate in public meetings set up by the GVSU team to elicit concerns and opinions, said Nordman. Those range from public officials, chambers of commerce and tourism advocates to members of the charter fishing industry, since there have been proposals to locate commercial wind turbines offshore in Lake Michigan.

Nordman said the stakeholders also include the energy sector, of course, and the GVSU researchers "definitely" plan on being in close contact with Consumers Energy.

"They are the big energy player on the west side of Michigan, and this has all really been driven by the renewable energy standard passed in October," added Nordman.

Michigan's renewable portfolio standard requires public utilities that distribute electricity to obtain 10 percent of their supply from renewable sources within the state of Michigan, such as wind or solar, by the year 2015.

Consumers Energy "has decided that wind is going to be their primary means of meeting that 10 percent standard," said Nordman. "They're planning on having up to 900 megawatts of capacity in the next seven or eight years. That’s a lot of windmills."

He noted that the typical commercial wind turbines are rated at 1.5 megawatts of capacity, which would require about 600 turbines to produce 900 megawatts.

Jennifer Alvarado of the Great Lakes Renewable Energy Association said Consumers Energy plans to begin construction of a wind farm "in about a year."

Dan Bishop, public information director at Consumers Energy, couldn't confirm that timeline but he did confirm that Consumers Energy is planning "to add 900 megawatts (of capacity) to help us comply with the law. The majority of that, of course, would be wind."

Consumers Energy is already at 4 percent, in regarding to renewable energy it distributes.

"We've got more than 50,000 easement acres that we've secured in Mason County, north of you," Bishop told the Business Journal, "and over on the east side (of Michigan) in Tuscola County."

Consumers Energy has "met" (meteorological) towers already in place in Mason and Tuscola counties, transmitting weather data to technicians in Jackson "to determine exactly the best locations for investment," according to Bishop.

"For us, it's more than a one billion dollar investment in wind that’s being planned," said Bishop.

Alvarado said many studies have already been done by organizations such as the American Wind Energy Association, in regard to the most common barriers to commercial wind farm development and public perceptions of them. She said what is needed most, and what groups such as GLREA focus on, is education of the public about the realities of renewable energy.

Alvarado said objections range from people who simply don't want to see wind turbines on the horizon to those who fear a presumed noise from the blades sweeping through the air or a hazard to birds and other wildlife.

For example, she said, the average number of bird kills per commercial wind turbine per year is from one to three birds. High-rise buildings and moving automobiles may actually kill more than that. However, she quickly noted that there are established guidelines for siting commercial turbines and "you don't want to put turbines in the migration path of birds," so environmental impact studies are always required for every wind farm development.

Paul Isely, one of the members of the GVSU team that will study potential wind energy conflicts in coastal West Michigan, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in physics from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in economics from Purdue. He said that from an economist's point of view, one of the most common misconceptions about commercial wind power is that "it's really expensive."

Another major misconception is that the United States is way behind the rest of the world in commercial wind farm development.

"Last year the U.S. became the largest producer of electricity via wind," he said.

According to the Web site windpoweringamerica.gov, as of May 1 there were 144 MW of wind-powered generating capacity installed in Michigan, 449 in Wisconsin, 916 in Illinois and 531 in Indiana. Ohio had just 7 MW. Texas has more than 8,200 and California more than 2,660.

Michigan's MW of installed wind power surged dramatically in 2008: from 3 at the end of 2007 to 144 at the end of last year.

"We are adding a lot of wind (power) very, very quickly," said Isely.

Wind turbine technology "has improved substantially" over the last 10 years, he said. The biggest cost pressure now on wind farm development is not enough turbines to meet the demand.

Photovoltaic panels that generate power from sunlight are relatively expensive compared to wind turbines, said Isely, but "are coming down in price very, very quickly, so we don’t know if solar at some point will be cheaper than wind."

According to AWEA, locales with a Wind Power Class rating of 4 or higher are now preferred for large-scale wind plants. Much of the eastern edge of Lake Michigan is at or above that class.

Isely said several factors add to the cost of wind power. A big problem for wind farm development this year is high interest rates. Another factor is wind speed — which is good along the shoreline of Lake Michigan. A third factor is the high transportation costs for commercial wind turbines, which are heavy and huge. Availability of transmission lines to carry wind-generated power to population centers where it is needed is another factor, and Isely said the shoreline already has a lot of transmission capacity.

As the economist on the team, Isely said his job will be to try to determine how to "monetize" the costs, plus or minus, associated with every aspect of commercial wind power, so that it can be compared in actual dollars to the cost of other sources of energy.

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