Winds of change blow closer to GR

August 5, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Like it or not, a commercial wind farm will be in operation in Mason County next year by Consumers Energy, and another has been proposed much closer to Grand Rapids at the Muskegon County wastewater treatment facility.

A special meeting was convened in Grand Rapids in late July for companies interested in playing a role in the logistics of transporting the huge components to a wind farm construction site — an industry in itself.

The Consumers Energy Lake Winds Energy Park, a $232 million, 100-megawatt project south of Ludington, was approved July 7 by the Mason County Planning Commission. The utility starts construction this fall and expects to have 56 turbines in operation next year in Summit and Riverton townships near Lake Michigan in southwest Mason County.

“From my standpoint, the most significant aspect of that Ludington project is the fact that it brings commercial-scale wind technology to the west side of the state,” said Arn Boezaart, executive director of the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. MAREC also is heavily involved with a major study of the feasibility of offshore commercial wind farms in Lake Michigan.

Michigan lags behind many other states in the amount of wind-generated electricity on the grid, with the first few wind farms only recently entering production or nearing completion.

“Up to now, it’s been in place over in the Thumb, and up by Cadillac at Stoney Corners. But now it’s going to be in a location where many of us” are going to see it, said Boezaart, referring to Lake Winds.

Dennis Marvin of Consumers Energy told the Business Journal the turbines will be made by Vestas, a Danish company, with some components coming from a Colorado manufacturing company. Each turbine will generate up to 1.8 megawatts of power and be mounted on towers about 312 feet high. Marvin said the tip of a turbine blade at its highest point will be about 476 feet above the ground.

All of the turbine locations received previous approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, Michigan Aeronautic Commission, and the Mason County Airport Zoning Board of Appeals.

Marvin said White Construction Inc. of Clinton, Ind., has been hired as the principal contractor. The White company website states that it is one of the largest crane rental businesses in the Midwest and specializes in wind farm construction.

Lake Winds will be Consumers’ first functioning wind farm; it also is planning to open its 150-megawatt Cross Winds Energy Park in Tuscola County on the east side of Michigan by late 2014.

The Lake Winds and Cross Winds projects are driven by Michigan’s Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act of 2008, which requires Michigan electric providers to achieve a retail supply portfolio that includes at least 10 percent renewable energy by 2015.

According to Consumers, the Lake Winds facility will produce enough electricity to meet the annual power needs of more than 31,000 residential customers. It is expected to provide Mason County taxing units with $29 million in property tax revenue over the first 20 years of operation. According to Consumers, construction of the wind park is expected to generate direct and indirect economic benefits in Mason County valued at $33 million. The Lake Winds Energy Park is expected to require about 12 full-time employees to operate it.

Boezaart said the proposed wind farm at the Muskegon County wastewater treatment facility, several miles east of Muskegon on the north side of M-47, is moving ahead as well. “That brings it even closer — basically a half-hour drive from downtown Grand Rapids.”

Mark Eisenbarth, director of the Muskegon County wastewater facility, said the county has been meeting with wind farm developers and hopes to enter into a contract with one by the end of August. He said the proposal is for a wind farm of 100-megawatt generating capacity with possibly as many as 50 turbines situated on the 11,000-acre treatment facility property, which is in a rural area about 14 miles inland from Lake Michigan.

Eisenbarth said Muskegon County has already received support for a wind farm proposal from the 15 communities that are served by the wastewater treatment system. However, once selected, the wind farm developer would be responsible for in-depth studies of a variety of issues, beginning with a determination that there is sufficient consistent wind at the site to make electrical generation feasible. That part of the research would take about a year to complete, said Eisenbarth.

The developer would also study potential impacts on migrating birds, bats and other animals, plus the issues of wind turbine noise and shadow flicker as it might impact nearby homeowners.

Eisenbarth said the wastewater treatment facility requires about two megawatts of electricity to operate its many pumps and equipment, and that it could obtain that from the proposed wind farm, with the rest of the wind farm generation being put on the grid and sold to utilities trying to make their renewable energy requirement of 10 percent.

The growing wind farm development activity on the western side of the state led to the July 27 Great Lakes Transportation Summit in Grand Rapids, sponsored by The Right Place economic development agency along with the American Wind Energy Association. International wind generation engineers/manufacturers such as Siemens, Acciona Wind Energy North America, and REpower USA Corp. were also in attendance, as were West Michigan companies such as Rockford Bergé, a wind farm construction company in Grand Rapids; Energetx of Holland, which makes turbine blades; and Great Lakes Heavy Haul of Grand Rapids. Other Michigan participants included the Michigan Rail Association, Wayne County Port Authority, URV USA LLC and Northern Power Systems.

“The summit was really a logistics summit,” said Boezaart, focused not so much on construction and technology of wind turbines as the logistics of moving them and infrastructure requirements.

“As these wind turbines continue to become larger, shipping them poses real challenges,” said Boezaart. “The towers alone have to be transported in four or five pieces.”

Due to state regulations pertaining to shipping by road, “there is a question of how well Michigan is prepared to accommodate all of those (logistical) requirements, and there hasn’t been lot of thought given to that.”

He said some MDOT regulations may even discourage use of Michigan roads for transportation of wind turbine components.

At the Grand Rapids meeting, it was revealed that in Canada, a certain size wind turbine can be transported in four sections by truck, but highway regulations and weight limits in Michigan would require five trucks for the same turbine.

Large wind turbine parts, such as tower sections and blades, are of a size that lends them to shipping by water. Although West Michigan is seemingly in a good position geographically for shipping by water, Boezaart said a likely port such as Muskegon does not yet have the infrastructure that would be required, such as large gantry cranes.

“It can be done over time, but the discussion was, how to plan for it?” said Boezaart.

There definitely are supply chain opportunities here related to wind farms, according to Boezaart. “There are about 8,000 components in a typical gear-driven wind turbine, and certainly West Michigan companies can contribute to most if not all of those components — if they get connected with the OEMs,” said Boezaart.

The Lake Winds project in Mason County “certainly is going to generate opportunities,” he said, but it raises the question: “What are we doing in West Michigan to get ready for that?”

“There is a lot more of this industry coming up to speed,” he said. “I think West Michigan would be well-advised to be ready to participate in that industry, because if we’re not ready, other people will be ready and they’ll run with the business.”

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