News Story

Utility Asks Court To Slap Down Excessive Wind Turbine Noise Finding

County believes wind plant is too noisy

Consumers Energy has consistently expressed its desire to be a "good neighbor." But when Mason County found that Lake Winds Energy Plant was too noisy, Consumers Energy took the issue to the courts.

Earlier this month, Consumers Energy (CMS) asked the 51st Circuit Court to overrule Mason County’s finding that the Lake Winds industrial wind plant, a 56-turbine facility south of Ludington, is not in compliance with the County’s noise ordinance. In addition, the utility is asking the court to halt efforts by Mason County to enforce its interpretation of the ordinance.

Kevon Martis, director of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition (IICC), said that for multiple reasons the Mason County wind turbine noise dispute is worth keeping an eye on.

"CMS's Energy’s Lake Winds Plant is the first in the state to be declared out of compliance with a wind turbine noise ordinance," Martis said. "It is remarkable that the same planning board that once approved this project now unanimously declared it to be out of compliance with noise guidelines that they had previously adopted as a direct result of intimate negotiations with CMS. The Mason County noise guidelines were essentially dictated to the Planning Commission by CMS agents."

The case pits alleged health and safety concerns against the potential economic viability of the $250 million industrial wind plant. Putting the wind plant in compliance with the county's interpretation of its noise ordinance likely would force CMS to lower the decibel levels on the turbines, which in turn could significantly reduce their efficiency.

"Unlike other power generators, the only means of mitigating wind turbine noise is by increasing the distance from the turbine to homes or to reduce the power output of the turbines themselves," Martis said. "Our review of the noise study shows that the turbines exceed the county noise limits at roughly 30 percent output. If the courts order CMS to curtail their output to such levels, as justice would demand, the price of energy from that project will rise substantially."

With so much at stake, if the 51st Circuit Court ultimately upholds the Mason County finding, CMS might be expected to take the issue on to the Michigan Court of Appeals.

For CMS, Lake Winds was its first wind energy project and is part of the utility’s effort to meet Michigan’s 10 percent energy mandate. Under the mandate, 10 percent of Michigan’s energy is supposed to be produced by in-state renewable sources by 2015. The mandate was supposed to be aimed at reducing carbon emissions; however the law did not require emissions be monitored to measure the mandate’s actual impact. 

The renewable energy mandate was one of two key provisions of the 2008 Energy Bill. Under the other key provision, competition within the state’s electricity market was capped at 10 percent, giving the state’s two largest electric utilities — CMS and Detroit Edison (DTE) — quasi-monopoly status.

In May 2011, before the turbines were up and running, CMS announced a $2 million "Good Neighbor Fund," which was to provide resources to address possible issues residents living close to the wind plant might have. But soon after the Lake Winds began operating, serious issues arose that apparently went beyond what the utility had anticipated.

On April 1, area residents filed a lawsuit claiming noise, vibrations and flickering lights generated by the wind plant were adversely impacting their health. Dizziness, sleeplessness and headaches are among the symptoms noted in the lawsuit.

Then in September, the Mason County Planning Commission determined that the wind plant is not in compliance with safety guidelines. CMS then appealed that decision to the Mason County Zoning Board of Appeals. In December, the County Zoning Board of Appeals upheld the planning commission's decision.

"CMS lost at the Zoning Board of Appeals and now they head to court to litigate the matter," Martis said. "In the meantime, the noisy turbines continue to drive Mason County residents to seek refuge from the noise by bunkering in their basements or fleeing to sleeping quarters outside the development."

Brian Wheeler, spokesman for CMS, did not respond to a request for comment.

Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.