Vander Veen Vies For Power

August 22, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
Text Size:
LOWELL — If there's a high, windy ridge out in the undeveloped countryside somewhere in Michigan, chances are Rich Vander Veen has been there.

There was a time a few years ago when Vander Veen, the president of Mackinaw Power, could usually be found ranging far afield looking for new sites for commercial wind farms. Lately, however, he has been spending a lot of time among the political power brokers in Lansing, fighting for a Renewable Portfolio Standard that will make commercial wind generation a more viable industry in Michigan. Half of the states have already enacted an RPS, which specifies that a minimum percentage of commercial power sold in that state must come from renewable sources such as wind, solar or water power.

"The big issue is getting the RPS passed in such a way that it works," he said. He and others are pushing for amendments to the RPS bill proposed by the Michigan Senate earlier this year.

Vander Veen, who also serves as president of the Michigan Sustainable Energy Coalition, already has a place in the history of wind generation in Michigan: He and his partners formed Bay Windpower in 1999, which built the first privately financed commercial wind turbines in the state. Located near Mackinaw City at the municipal treatment plant, the 900-kilowatt turbines mounted on two 236-foot-tall towers have blades 85 feet long. They began spinning in December 2001, each generating enough electricity for about 280 homes.

Today, about $500 million worth of new wind-power projects are being developed by Mackinaw Power, but many other companies are at work here, too. Early this year, the first commercial-scale wind farm in Michigan began adding power to the state's electrical grid. The Harvest Wind Farm LLC, developed by John Deere Wind Energy and Wolverine Power Cooperative, has 32 turbines between Elkton and Pigeon in Huron County. Another 46-turbine wind farm is approved for construction nearby in the Thumb.

Richard F. Vander Veen III
Company: Mackinaw Power
Title: President
Age: 57
Birthplace: Flint
Residence: Grattan Township
Family: Wife, Susan; two daughters, one son and three grandchildren
Business/Community Organizations: Michigan Sustainable Energy Coalition, West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum, Great Lakes Wind Collaborative, EARTH University Foundation, John D. Voelker Foundation.
Biggest Career Break: Working in his first career job with Joe Parini in aerospace manufacturing at Lear Siegler Inc.

But good wind sites are found all over Michigan: Several companies, including Iberdrola, a Spanish firm said to be the largest wind farm developer in the world, are competing to lease wind rights on the high ridges northwest of Grand Rapids.

Vander Veen was born in Flint, the son of Dick Vander Veen, who later practiced law in Grand Rapids. Dick Vander Veen was also an entrepreneur and a politician. A Democrat, he was elected to Congress to fill the seat vacated by Jerry Ford when he left the U.S. House in 1974 to become vice president under Nixon.

With a degree in International Relations from James Madison College at Michigan State University, the younger Vander Veen went to work in 1977 at Lear Siegler Inc., in the company's aerospace and manufacturing operations. That experience proved valuable. He said he was impressed by the power of manufacturing to add wealth to the economy through the successful combination of materials and labor.

While still employed at Lear Siegler, Vander Veen began attending the Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, where he received his law degree. He went to work at Miller, Johnson, Snell & Cummiskey in Grand Rapids, where he became involved in legal issues involving public utilities. Eventually, he became an advocate for giving customers a choice in the source of their electricity.

Since the early 1990s, Vander Veen also has worked with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and EARTH University in Costa Rica. He has helped the university grow by developing internships with U.S. companies and assisted in funding scholarships for students from 20 countries to promote sustainable agriculture and entrepreneurial projects.

In the late 1990s, Vander Veen wrote an article that was published in the Michigan Bar Journal: “Michigan Is Now Entering a New Electrical Energy Field: Competition.” His research was cited by the Michigan Supreme Court in an opinion it issued regarding retail electricity. It was that research that opened Vander Veen's eyes to the damage done to the environment by coal-fired electrical generation: One-third of all U.S. air pollution can be traced to coal-fired power plants, he said.

He also said his thinking began to evolve — from thinking like a lawyer to thinking more like an entrepreneur.

In 1999, Vander Veen formed Bay Windpower with Tom Fehsenfeld of Crystal Flash and Steve Smiley of Suttons Bay. Fehsenfeld was the founding chairman of the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum and was Bay Windpower's chief financial officer. Smiley had been involved in development of the first publicly financed commercial wind turbine in Michigan, built by Traverse City Light and Power in 1996.

In 2003, Vander Veen formed Mackinaw Power with Fred Keller of Cascade Engineering as the chairman of the new company. One of their five current projects is in the Upper Peninsula. Another, overlapping Mason and Oceana counties, could involve more than 100 turbines.

"We have over a thousand megawatts of wind power under development in Michigan and other states, and Ontario," said Vander Veen.

Wind generators are expensive pieces of equipment. Manufacturing them could help boost the ailing industrial economy in Michigan, according to Vander Veen, and he is working with one company that may do so some day, he said.

"The wind turbine business is likely to become a one trillion dollar business within the next 30 years," he said, including manufacture of the equipment and transmission systems. Michigan alone has the potential to increase its current 20,000 megawatts of wind-generated electricity to 300,000 watts.

Critics of wind generation maintain that it is not a consistent energy source, and there is no practical way to store any excess. Vander Veen said the storage issue is a "myth," because meteorology now is so advanced that wind-generating plants tied into the grid can predict what they will produce in the week ahead. That gives the conventional generation plants advance notice to schedule production to make up the balance, said Vander Veen.

But, according to Vander Veen, wind generation in Michigan won't really get off the ground until the state has a Renewable Portfolio Standard that isn't stacked in favor of the utilities. That will require three key things, he said. The first is to allow competition in the bidding and ownership of wind generation projects.

Second, if a utility does not meet the requirements of providing its customers with a minimal amount of renewable energy in the time frame specified by the RPS, it should be subject to real fines and penalties that would be paid by its shareholders, not the rate payers, he said.

Lastly, an RPS would include a renewable energy surcharge on every ratepayer bill — but that money should not go to the utilities. It should be placed under the control of the public service commission in a public trust, said Vander Veen.

Vander Veen noted that one third of all new commercial generating developments now are wind power.

"It's not exactly alternative energy anymore. It's mainstream," he said.

Recent Articles by Pete Daly

Editor's Picks

Comments powered by Disqus