Construction begins on first West Michigan wind farm

December 24, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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West Michigan’s first commercial wind farm, and the first to be owned by Consumers Energy, is now under construction in Mason County, despite a suit filed by nearby residents who claim it may present a hazard.

As foundations were being poured in December for the Lake Winds Energy Park, Consumers Energy spokesman Dan Bishop said the wind farm should be producing electricity by October 2012.

Located in southwestern Mason County in Riverton and Summit townships, about 75 miles northwest of Grand Rapids, Lake Winds is an investment of $232 million that will result in 56 wind turbines capable of generating slightly more than 100 megawatts of power. In comparison, the B.C. Cobb coal-fired generating plant on Muskegon Lake generates 320 megawatts, enough for about 200,000 people, according to Consumers. The utility’s J.H. Campbell coal plant on Lake Michigan near West Olive generates 1,450 megawatts, enough for about 1 million people.

The Lake Winds towers will have a hub height of 312 feet. The blades will be about 160 feet long, so the highest point a blade tip will reach is about 472 feet.

Bishop said the turbines won’t arrive on the Lake Winds site until early May, with the majority of them being supplied by a Vestas facility in Colorado. Vestas, a Danish firm, began manufacturing wind turbines in 1979 and has now produced 43,000 that have been erected in 66 countries on six continents.

“This is being built to enable us to comply with the 2008 energy law” passed by the Michigan Legislature, said Bishop. It requires all electricity providers in the state, including the two major utilities plus municipal and cooperative electricity distribution companies, to obtain at least 10 percent of their power from Michigan-based renewable generation sources by 2015.

“Right now, Consumers is at about 5 percent,” said Bishop. That comes from Consumers’ existing hydroelectric dams, biomass generation, landfill gas generation, and contracts it has for purchase of wind-generated power.

“When Lake Winds begins operating by the end of 2012, that will move us from 5 to 8 percent. Then we’ve got an additional wind park (Cross Winds Energy Park) we are going to be building in Tuscola County” in eastern Michigan, said Bishop, “plus we’ll be entering into contracts with other wind suppliers.”

Two leading considerations in the location of commercial wind farms are wind potential and transmission infrastructure. Wind at the Lake Winds site is adequate, according to Consumers, with an average speed of 15 mph or more, and the high-voltage transmission lines are already there, connecting the massive Ludington Pumped Storage Plant to the Midwestern electrical grid.

“We’re not here because of the Pumped Storage Plant; we’re here because of the transmission that serves the Pumped Storage” and the available capacity on those lines to tap into, said Dennis H. Marvin, communications director of Consumers Energy’s New Generation division.

Last year, an executive with ITC Holdings, which owns much of the high-voltage transmission lines in the Lower Peninsula, told the Business Journal it would cost about $510 million to build roughly 120 miles of high-voltage transmission.

The Ludington Pumped Storage Plant, built in the early 1970s and owned jointly by Consumers and DTE Energy, stores 1,872 megawatts of power. At night, when demand for electricity is low, its giant pumps pull water up from Lake Michigan into a 27-billion-gallon reservoir. During the day, the water is released back into the lake, driving turbines that generate electricity that is put back on the grid when it is most needed.

The Pumped Storage Plant, located four miles south of Ludington, has three high-voltage transmission lines connecting it to the grid, each with 345,000-volt capacity. The lines actually pass through a 16,000-acre area just to the east of the plant, where the wind turbines will be built.

The general contractor on the Lake Winds project is White Construction Inc. of Clinton, Ind. Soil studies to determine what degree of reinforcement will be needed for the turbine foundations is being done by Superior Environmental Corp., which is based in Marne.

In June, according to incorporation records at the Michigan Bureau of Commercial Services, a group called Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy was organized by individuals who live among the scattered sites where the turbines will be erected. CARRE, which reportedly has about 33 members, filed suit in Mason County Circuit Court, asking for an injunction to halt construction. CARRE alleges the turbines will be too close to homes and natural gas lines running through the area, and could trigger a major gas explosion if one of the towers fell over a buried gas pipeline.

Legal permits to construct the wind farm were approved by county planning officials, and later by the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals.

Ronald M. Redick, of Mika Meyers Beckett & Jones in Grand Rapids, is representing the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals. He said the Mason County Planning Commission had approved a special land-use permit for two separate Consumers Energy projects: one is for erection of the meteorological towers to monitor wind and weather at the site, and the other is for construction of the Lake Winds Energy Park itself.

CARRE appealed both permits to the Zoning Board of Appeals, which subsequently upheld both permits, so CARRE took its fight to court.

“They would like to stay the entire project,” said Redick, “but we do not believe their motion to stay ultimately has merit.”

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