News Story

Communities Again Say ‘No’ To Industrial Wind Farm Developers

But state’s big utilities look to install hundreds of turbine towers

Voters in three Michigan communities considered ballot issues related to industrial wind farms during the May 7 election, and in all three cases, they rejected policies preferred by wind farm developers.

Voters in Kawkawlin Township, in Bay County, voted 750 to 263 to recall a township supervisor who was considered to be pro-wind by opponents of wind farm development. Citizens in Jonesfield Township, in Saginaw County, voted down an amendment to the township zoning ordinance considered to be more amenable to wind development. They rejected the change a margin of 149 to 99. Voters in L’Anse Township, in Baraga County, voted 315 to 257 against an amendment to their zoning ordinance. The amendment was backed by wind developer RES America, the U.S. subsidiary of a British wind development firm looking to install dozens of wind turbines in the area.

Local resistance to wind development throughout Michigan, and especially in Huron, Tuscola and Bay counties of Michigan’s Thumb region, has complicated business for Consumers Energy and DTE. The state’s two largest regulated monopoly utility companies plan to build additional renewable capacity in the coming years. Under Michigan’s Renewable Portfolio Standard law of 2016, electric utilities must obtain 15% of the electricity they sell from what the state deems to be renewable sources by 2021.

Both major utilities plan to build hundreds of megawatts of new wind capacity in the state to fulfill the mandate. Consumers plans on having 550 megawatts of additional capacity while DTE foresees another 465 MW. The figures would suggest around 450 new industrial wind turbines and towers in these counties and possibly a few elsewhere. Wind turbines of the type now being used in Michigan can generate up to 2.2 MW at full capacity. Starting in the mid-2020s, Consumers plans to lean more heavily on solar energy.

In June 2018, Consumers announced 150 MW and 105 MW wind projects in Gratiot County and northwest Ohio. In March 2019, DTE announced a new 161 MW wind park in Gratiot and Isabella counties.

Consumers said in June 2018 testimony on its future generation plans that local opposition to new or expanded wind farms means “wind built in Michigan may not be cost-effective or a feasible option.” But Michigan’s other big utility, DTE, contends that wind is still the lowest cost source of renewable energy.

“At present, wind energy is the lowest cost and most abundant renewable resource for Michigan,” said Cindy Hecht, senior communications specialist at DTE Energy. “DTE has wind energy projects in various stages of development throughout Michigan. We have also worked successfully with communities throughout the state to develop wind energy projects that balance diverse community interests and personal property rights. The cost of wind energy in Michigan is now on par with natural gas, even without the federal subsidies. In March, DTE commissioned Pine River, its most cost-effective and cost-efficient, wind project to date.”

Brian Wheeler, senior public information director at Consumers Energy, said in an emailed statement that Consumers’ solar and wind renewable resources are cost-effective. The utility, he said, continues to work with local leaders and residents to address any siting concerns as they invest in new projects. He added, “We have found many local residents appreciate the jobs, economic investment and income associated with renewable energy projects.”

A survey released in June 2014 by Sarah Mills, currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, found that “where wind energy is a topic of discussion, 53% of officials support adding turbines in their own jurisdictions, while 16% oppose this.”

Kevon Martis of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition disagrees with Mills’ findings on local government officials, saying that over twice as many townships have restricted wind development in their zoning ordinances than have adopted permissive wind ordinances. Martis has helped local groups opposing wind farm developments in communities throughout Michigan and Ohio.

“The one characteristics we’ve found among townships that have allowed these types of permissive regulations is that there is a conflict of interest among one or more of the policy makers, in the form of a wind lease with a developer, in that jurisdiction,” Martis said. “Opposition is quick and fierce in most parts of the state and is not just ‘city people’ who moved to the country. We see many farmers and long-time local residents opposing wind development as well, as many left-leaning environmentalists, especially in Baraga County, in the Upper Peninsula.”

Ed Rivet, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, said he believes that innovation, and not state mandates, will push the increase of renewable energy in Michigan.

“In general the view I have, I believe is actually shared by some environmentalists, that the RPS is sort of a device of the last century because innovation is going to drive renewable energy far more than renewable mandates [such as the renewable portfolio standard],” Rivet said. “Certainly siting is a significant issue. To what extent they can build wind, is a different question than is it worth it, do the dollars and cents pencil out? Clearly they do.”

Jason Hayes, the environmental policy director for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, believes the renewable sources mandate is forcing noncompetitive wind and solar options into the electricity system.

“Modeling in our upcoming report on the costs of Michigan’s RPS demonstrates this policy forces Michigan’s electricity prices higher. A recent University of Chicago study also agrees that RPS policies raise prices by 17%, 12 years after they are implemented,” Hayes said. He also pointed to numbers from state regulators. “This year’s MPSC report on the cost-effectiveness of the P.A. 295 Renewable Energy Standard also shows that the ‘staff calculated levelized cost’ of the most recent signed wind contracts (without storage) for the mid-Michigan region are in the $50 to $60 / MWh range. These contract prices are about double the prices reported by MPSC staff for existing natural gas units.”

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.