INTRO: Michigan has 80 industrial scale windmills in operation right now. A single structure costs well over a million dollars. That’s why the big utility companies have dominated the landscape so far. But what about smaller scale projects? Michigan Now’s Chris McCarus reports from the American Wind Energy Association Meeting in Detroit.
The American Wind Energy Association, or AWEA, has been criticized for favoring the big guys who have the big money to do big projects. So they decided to hold a conference they called Small and Community Wind. Lisa Daniels runs an advocacy group in Minneapolis.
“We’re seeing time and time again that there are economic benefits that stay local and that’s what is driving the policy. Keeping those investment dollars local. Building a rural industry compatible with existing land uses whether it’s agriculture, recreation or whatever. Also providing national energy security and addressing climate change.”
Community wind is when ordinary residents band together. They hash out terms with the local government. Can we put windmills on the highest point in town? Will people want to hide them from view? How big can they be? Can we sell bonds to finance it? And will the utility company accept the electricity we want to sell back to them?
Right now community wind is hard. It’s hard to do this. It takes years. It’s not months it’s years. If it’s not the permitting then it’s access to machines or access to capital. And all of this has to be done in a timely fashion.”
There are only a handful of community wind projects in Michigan right now. There’s the school in Pigeon Elkton and then the village of Northport. Both projects have local residents who are also engineers. But even with technically minded residents in your community, there’s a lot of new information to absorb. Brett Pingree sells wind turbines for Vermont based Northern Power.
“Try to understand what the total cost will be. This is a 20 year investment. Understand all the costs. Are gear boxes gonna fail? How many times. What’s involved? Do I need a crane? What do those cost? Do the blades need cleaning? How about sound? What kind of decibel levels does it give off.”
This summer, a state panel appointed by the Michigan Public service commission heard testimony from Huron County residents. Several said they should never have allowed the turbines to go up. They claimed they’re harmful to human health and they lower property values. Brett Pingree says complaining about what goes up on the land dates as far back as national rural electrification in 1936.
“There are people out there that drive around and worry about the sky falling and telephone poles falling down and they don’t.”
So Pingree and the other wind power advocates meeting in Detroit say that winning the hearts and minds of the public is important. Matt Garran is the American Wind Energy Association’s Supply Chain manager. He says America has wasted a huge opportunity. He compares technological advances between phones and light bulbs.
“If Alexander Graham Bell came back and visited us today he would be astounded at what we did with his invention. But if Thomas Edison or Nikola Tesla came back they could pick right back up where they left off when they left us.”