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Renewable energy prop could divide communities targeted for wind farms

Mary Straubel vividly remembers the day in 2009 that thrust her into a contentious debate over wind energy that would create a deep rift in the quaint tourist towns of northwest Lower Michigan.

"I came home from work one day and someone had put up an anemometer (wind gauge) across the street," said Straubel, a nurse who lives in a rural township southeast of Frankfort. "I had no idea what it was."

She learned from the property owner that Duke Energy was looking to build a large wind farm north of Frankfort, on farmland near the Lake Michigan coast.

The project — which has since been postponed indefinitely — divided the community, spurred a successful recall of three members of the Joyfield Township Board of Trustees and left simmering resentment in the communities of Frankfort, Beulah and Benzonia.

"Its horrid," said Straubel, who led the effort to recall the three township board members who supported the wind farm. "People in our township are angry; people refuse to see the other side’s logic; and there have been threats of physical violence. It’s just been terrible."

Straubel said other Michigan communities should expect similar turmoil if voters approve Proposal 3. The proposed constitutional amendment would require Michigan’s utilities to obtain 25 percent of the electricity they sell from renewable sources — wind, solar, biomass or hydropower — by 2025.

Map of Michigan wind speeds at 100-meter altitude

Supporters of Proposal 3 said increasing wind power is the quickest way to meet the 25 percent renewable energy mandate. The state would need between 2,000 and 3,100 new wind turbines to meet the proposed renewable energy standard.

The four windiest regions of Michigan — the Thumb, Allegan County, Antrim and Charlevoix counties, and an area encompassing Manistee, Benzie and Leelanau counties — have the best potential for wind energy, according to a 2012 report by the Michigan Public Service Commission.

But some of those areas also rank among the state’s most popular regions for tourism.

Large wind farms already have been erected in the Thumb, southeast of Ludington and near Lake City. Proposal 3 could potentially turn the Thumb into a massive, sprawling wind farm.

Faced with that prospect, county commissioners in Huron County unanimously passed a resolution in September opposing Proposal 3.

Several residents of Huron County sued the firm that installed a wind farm near Ubly, claiming the turbines were noisy, cast annoying shadows and diminished their quality of life. The case was settled out of court; the terms were never disclosed.

Hugh McDiarmid, a spokesman for the Michigan Environmental Council, which is promoting Proposal 3, said wind turbines that are sited and operated properly pose no problems for nearby residents.

"Independent studies around the world consistently found that wind farms have no direct impact on physical health," McDiarmid said. "That cannot be said of fossil fuel electric plant generation, which poisons the environment and creates a host of human health problems including premature death, crippling asthma and respiratory and circulatory impairments."

If Proposal 3 passes, Michigan utilities would have 10 years to triple the amount of wind energy that is projected to be online in the state by 2015.

Consumers Energy spokesman Jeff Holyfield said it typically takes about five years to build a wind farm, from the time a company begins acquiring land leases to the day the turbines start spinning.

State studies estimate that Michigan will need about the same amount of installed electric generating capacity in 2025 as is currently in place.

Proposal 3 would require that Michigan’s utilities obtain about 5,000 megawatts of electricity from renewable energy sources by 2025. To achieve that primarily with wind energy would require installing between 2,000 and 3,100 wind turbines, according to supporters of Proposal 3 and industry officials.

Wind above, (need for) ground below

Because each wind turbine requires a clear area on the ground beneath it, the new turbines needed to meet the 25 percent renewable energy mandate would occupy between 276,000 acres and 500,000 acres of land.

In other words, Michigan could obtain 25 percent of its electricity from a fleet of wind turbines that would occupy, at most, 1.4 percent of the state’s total land mass.

The state’s two largest utilities, DTE Energy and Consumers Energy, have together already leased 127,000 acres of land for wind farms in the Thumb and West Michigan, according to company brochures.

Holyfield said it would be difficult to install 3,100 wind turbines by 2025, given the controversial nature of wind farms. He said a statewide zoning ordinance might be needed to facilitate the installation of wind turbines.

The prospect of a statewide zoning ordinance that usurps local control prompted the Michigan Townships Association and the Michigan Association of Counties to oppose Proposal 3.

Jeff Alexander is owner of J. Alexander Communications LLC and the author of "Pandora's Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes - St. Lawrence Seaway." He’s a former staff writer for the Muskegon Chronicle.

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