No ones tilting at Muskegon wind farm idea

January 27, 2012
| By Pete Daly |
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One is a proposed wind farm; the other is already under construction. One is in Mason County, the other about 50 miles south in Muskegon County — but the local reactions are very different.

The wind farm proposed at the Muskegon County wastewater treatment facility just off M-46 in Egelston and Moorland townships, now awaiting word from a Spanish wind-farm developer interested in the proposal, apparently has no organized opposition. The other, the Lake Winds Energy Park under construction by Consumers Energy about 10 miles south of Ludington, is engaged in a legal battle with neighbors who are trying to stop it.

The big difference between the two is ownership of the sites. Muskegon County’s wastewater treatment site is 11,000 acres owned by the county.

In Mason County, however, “We are dealing literally with hundreds of land owners, both those that have signed an easement with us and those that didn’t. So there is a tremendously huge difference in terms of public relationships,” said Dennis H. Marvin, communications director of Consumers Energy’s New Generation division.

A single owner of a parcel large enough to accommodate a wind farm simplifies a lot of things, said Arn Boezaart, director of GVSU’s Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon.

“With a lot of wind farms — witness what’s going on up at Ludington — you’ve got push back, you’ve got unhappy neighbors, or you’ve got people who are objecting for one reason or another. In this instance, you’ve got 11,000 acres of land that the county has committed to this activity, and you’ve got two adjacent townships that are saying, ‘And if you need more land, we are ready, willing and anxious to have you come across the road and use our resources, as well.’”

“It’s a very welcoming environment” in Egelston and Moorland townships, added Boezaart, who is involved in a major study of offshore conditions that might work for or against wind farms in Lake Michigan.

Last fall, Muskegon County commissioners voted to have the wastewater facility begin negotiations with Gamesa, a turbine manufacturing corporation based in Madrid, Spain, that designs, installs and maintains commercial-size wind turbines. According to Gamesa, it has 31 production facilities in Europe, the U.S., China, India and Brazil, with 8,000 employees worldwide. It is also actively involved in development and construction of wind farms, having installed 4,300 megawatts of generation capacity.

Mark Eisenbarth, director of the Muskegon County Wastewater Management System, said the tentative proposal is for a wind farm ranging from 100 to 150 megawatts. A 100-megawatt wind farm using 2.5-megawatt turbines would have about 40 turbines. Eisenbarth noted, however, that some newer wind turbines can generate as much as 3 or 4 megawatts of power at peak output.

Eisenbarth said initial studies indicate winds at the wastewater site average about six meters per second, which has Gamesa interested. “They just want to confirm our data is accurate.” To do that, Gamesa would erect a met tower at the site — but before it invests any money there in a wind-monitoring tower, it would want to lock down a lease with the county.

Scandia Wind, a wind-farm developer from Minnesota with partners in Scandinavia, is also involved with Gamesa, as is Rockford Bergé, a Grand Rapids-based company involved in the logistics of wind farm construction. Scandia Wind was also behind proposals for offshore wind farms that were strongly opposed in Mason and Oceana counties.

The supervisors of both Egelston and Moorland townships told the Business Journal there is no apparent opposition there to a wastewater facility wind farm, and the increased revenue from personal property tax on the turbines and real property tax on the electrical transmission infrastructure would be much appreciated by the township officers.

“I can’t recall anybody coming into a board meeting and being real negative about it. Of course, they had a conniption fit about putting them out in Lake Michigan,” said Mike Thompson, supervisor of Egelston Township. The wastewater treatment site is about 12 miles from Lake Michigan.

“Out here, it doesn’t seem to be a problem — which it wouldn’t be. I think they’d look majestic out there, myself,” he added.

Chuck Krepps is supervisor of Moorland Township, which abuts Egelston on the east. The wastewater facility overlaps the area where the two townships meet. Krepps said Moorland Township was not zoned for wind turbines, “so we had to have a public hearing — and nobody came. So as far as opposition is concerned, there doesn’t appear to be any opposition to this at all within the township — at least, any organized opposition.”

Thompson said Egelston owns 40 acres along M-46 next to the wastewater facility, and if the wind farm expanded beyond the wastewater site, “they could stick a couple of windmills there, possibly. That’s what I would like to see happen.”

Then the township would be leasing land to the wind farm, a welcome source of revenue in addition to the taxes.

Krepps said one new development that disappoints him is a change made by the state tax commission regarding the personal property tax on wind turbines. Normally the turbines would be taxed starting at their full value and then depreciated at 5 percent per year until reaching 30 percent value. Now, however, the turbines will be taxed starting at 80 percent of value and will depreciate to 30 percent in just five years.

Krepps said the change came about because the current administration in Lansing does not favor using tax credits as investment incentives. There are tax credits to incentivize wind-farm investments, but those now are going to expire. The lower PPT rate on turbines is intended to substitute for the tax credit incentive.

“So the public officials (in the townships) are not very happy with what the tax commission did. Does that change the way we look at the wind farm? We know it’s the right place and it’s the right time, probably, to try that in this area, because it’s a large parcel of property, and they aren’t going to bother many people. It’s a good place to start,” said Krepps.

Krepps said many rural townships, including Moorland, rely heavily on real property taxes on energy company infrastructure, including transmission lines and substations.

Krepps said there is a possibility the proposed wind farm may extend beyond the wastewater site, and he is on a committee that would be negotiating with Scandia Wind for additional property leases in Moorland, Ravenna and parts of Sullivan Township. Krepps said that activity is on hold until a lease agreement is reached with Gamesa, however.

Krepps said the actual generating capacity of the wind farm will depend on the contract it makes for sale of the electricity generated there.

“The size of the (wind farm) will ultimately be determined by the size of the end user” of the power, said Krepps. “If Muskegon wastewater only gets a contract to market 150 megs (of power), that’s all they will build. But if they get a contract for 300 megs, then they are going to come offsite and start looking” for additional property in the adjoining communities.

Meanwhile, construction continues on turbine foundations in Mason County on Lake Winds, a $232 million investment by Consumers Energy to help it meet the state mandate to obtain at least 10 percent of its electricity from Michigan-based renewable generation sources by 2015.

Lake Winds is planned to generate just over 100 megawatts of peak power, using about 56 wind turbines.

A group of property owners adjacent to the planned turbine sites formed Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy, claiming the turbines could collapse and rupture nearby gas lines. CARRE has now filed an appeal, attempting to overturn a decision by the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals to grant permits for construction of the wind farm, and has also filed a request for an injunction to stop construction.

There has been no ruling yet on the injunction, so construction continues and a determination on the appeal isn’t expected before mid-February.

“We are confident that everything was done appropriately and within the laws and the zoning requirements,” said Marvin. “We have literally hundreds of people signed on and supporting the project, and only a few that oppose us.”

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