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Wind power finds Thumb home

Construction delayed, but Sanilac wind farm gets OK

Sept. 7, 2007

(Port Huron, Michigan) Times Herald

By Bill Chapin

After two years of cutting through regulatory red tape, all the agreements are in place to allow construction of the Noble Thumb Windpark near Ubly to proceed.

The Huron County Board of Commissioners and Huron County Planning Commission have signed off on site plans for construction in Sheridan and Bingham townships. All that remains to be done is completing the “tons of paperwork” necessary to finance the 46-turbine project, development manager Jeanette Hagen said.

She was uncertain how long that would take, but construction may not begin this year as Noble Environmental Power had hoped.

Once Phase I of the wind park — located in Sheridan and Bingham townships — is up and running, the company will turn its attention to Sanilac County. Plans for Phase II call for 60 turbines to be built along a ridge running through Delaware, Minden, Marion, Bridgehampton and Washington townships all the way to Carsonville.

The company started contacting Sanilac County landowners about easement rights two years ago at the same time it started in Huron County.

Residents near Ubly, concerned the giant turbines would disrupt the area’s quiet, rural landscape have largely given up the fight and accepted that, for now, trying to keep wind power from coming to Michigan’s Thumb is about as futile as trying to keep the wind itself out.

Noble Thumb Windpark no longer is poised to be the state’s first commercial-scale project to convert wind energy to electricity. That honor goes to the nearby Harvest Wind Farm in Oliver Township near Elkton.

About 1/3 of the park’s 32 turbines have been erected since construction started in August. The park’s owner, John Deere Wind Energy, expects to have all the turbines operating by the end of the year.

Crews from Alliant Energy of Madison, Wis., are putting in 10-hour days assembling the turbines, which have blades that reach 396 feet into the air.

Megawatt potential

When operational, Harvest Wind farm will generate almost 53 megawatts of electricity in optimal wind conditions and Noble Thumb Windpark will generate 69 megawatts.

By comparison, DTE Energy’s coal-fired Belle River Power Plant has a capacity of more than 1,200 megawatts.

The wind energy will be sold to power companies. Harvest Wind Farm has an agreement with Wolverine Power Cooperative while Noble Thumb Windpark has an agreement with Consumers Energy.

Proponents of wind power say it is a clean, renewable source of energy that can reduce the use of fossil fuels. Opponents say that, due to the unreliability of wind, power plants have to maintain their output, and that wind power is only profitable due to tax incentives.

The Thumb has some of the highest average annual wind-speed readings in Michigan, said Brian Lammers, manager of wind energy business development for John Deere, which also has wind parks in Texas, Minnesota, Missouri, Illinois and Idaho.

“It’s also good land in terms of topography. It’s flat,” he said.

John Deere, which worked with Michigan Wind LLC of Big Rapids to develop the project, ran into some of the same problems as Noble Environmental Power. The limited capacity of the Thumb’s electrical transmission system, which moves electricity long distances on high-tension wires, was a concern for both.

“Essentially, we’re putting power plants in sparsely populated areas,” Lammers said. “Transmission and interconnection of these projects is always a challenge.”

Identifying the necessary upgrades and guaranteeing their costs early on was one of the main reasons Harvest Wind Farm was able to start construction first. The Noble Thumb Windpark also had changes in management that set its project back.

Economic benefits

Huron County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Carl Osentoski said the county already is seeing benefits from wind power.

“It’s an opportunity for the county be in the forefront of alternative energy development in the state, plus it also gives us a way to diversify our local economy,” he said.

Income is being generated by the workers staying in hotels and eating at restaurants. A few long-term jobs, about 10 per wind park, will be created to keep the turbines operating.

The wind parks increase the county’s tax base, Osentoski said, and generate income for farmers, who receive payments for allowing turbines on their land.

“We’re starting to see some additional tourism,” he said, “with folks interested in ... observing the construction of the turbines — which is pretty impressive, I must say.”

Sanilac County officials are hoping they’ll see similar effects once Phase II of the Noble Thumb Windpark starts.

“I really think it is something that is needed, and hopefully it can come to pass,” Washington Township Supervisor Shirley Feirer said. “It could be a definite asset to the county.”


SIDEBAR: Communities see benefits of projects

By Bill Chapin

Harvest Wind Park in Huron County’s Oliver Township is set to be Michigan’s first commercial-scale wind park, but communities in other states already have rural wind parks up and running.

Officials in those rural areas are less interested in the electricity than the taxes the giant wind turbines generate. The positive experiences they report are similar to what Sanilac County can expect if Noble Thumb Windpark’s proposed Phase II expansion becomes a reality.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas leads the nation in wind power, with hundreds of turbines capable of generating more than 3,000 megawatts of electricity.

Minnesota ranks fourth at more than 800 megawatts. In Mower County, which is in southeast Minnesota, there are five wind parks operating or in development.

“We’re pretty fortunate here to have the right type of wind and right type of transmission lines these developers are looking for,” said Raymond Tucker, a county commissioner whose district includes the 43-turbine Mower County Wind Energy Center.

Mower is mostly rural, with 90 percent of its land used for agriculture. Like Huron County, turbines there are being built in corn and bean fields.

Minnesota collects a tax on wind energy that is returned to the county, which distributes the money among itself, the townships and school districts in which the turbines are located. Tucker said the county is receiving $800 to $900 per turbine annually.

Michigan has not established a similar energy tax, but the wind parks still will increase property tax bases in Huron and Sanilac counties by providing millions of dollars worth of new equipment to be assessed.

Waymart Wind Farm in Pennsylvania’s Wayne County has doubled the tax base of Canaan Township. Wayne County is in the state’s northeastern corner.

“It’s been very good for us,” township Supervisor Jim Labar said.

Canaan Township’s 43 turbines were installed in 2003 along a mountain ridge “on land that was literally not used for anything before,” Labar said.

Otherwise, the wind park hasn’t had much effect on the economy.

“We don’t see it really enhancing or detracting from commercial development,” Wayne Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Mary Beth Wood said.

A common concern prior to construction is that noise made as the turbines turn will disturb residents who live near them. Labar said the park’s owner periodically checks the turbines to make sure they meet federal regulations that limit noise to 65 decibels, about the volume level of normal human speech.

“The refrigerator in your kitchen makes more noise than they do,” Labar said.

Tucker said the county hasn’t had any ongoing complaints from residents.

“You have to be right beside them to actually hear them,” he said. “They change the landscape, I gotta admit, ... but shortly afterward everybody seems to be accustomed to them.

“There really isn’t a downside we’ve encountered.”


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