Michigan’s wind energy industry soaring

“Wind energy has been the primary source of new renewable energy in Michigan,” John Quackenbush, the chairman of the Michigan Public Service Commission said Friday as he addressed green energy proponents at the Michigan Energy Fair in Mason.

One reason: It’s about half as expensive to produce than utility companies initially expected, down to as little as $50 a megawatt hour last year from more than $100 a megawatt hour in 2009, according to the Michigan Public Service Commission.

In the past few years, wind power in Michigan has created jobs, given rise to new companies that supply components — such as Ventower Industries in Monroe — and even inspired a few school projects and tourism. The nonprofit group, Natural Resources Defense Council, says Michigan is home to about 120 companies that supply wind components and employ 4,000.

A state law that requires 10% of electricity produced come from renewable sources by the end of next year has increased demand and helped propel the construction of wind farms. Michigan still gets more than half, 54%, of its power from coal, a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions.

Since the state law passed in 2008, utilities have invested more than $2.2 billion in renewable technology, including building hundreds of wind turbines, some as tall as the Fisher Building. There are now more than 20 wind farms in Michigan that are operational and in development, the public service commission said.

Michigan utilities and energy producers have strategies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, mostly by adding scrubbers to coal-fired power plants and also by replacing coal-fired plants with ones that run on cleaner-burning natural gas. More renewable energy also has become a big part of the equation. Because of that demand, Michigan’s growing wind business has meant falling prices for residential consumers.

To cover the extra cost of green energy production, residential customers have been paying a utility surcharge. This year, largely because of the lower cost of wind, DTE has reduced its surcharge from $3 per meter a month to 43 cents, and Consumers Energy is eliminating its surcharge altogether, down from $2.50 starting in July. The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the cost cuts on June 19.

Education, tourism

Wind farms — which sprout towers 400 feet tall — have been praised and derided.

Some Michiganders don’t like the turbines’ humming noise from the whirling blades. They complain that the towers ruin views. As a source of power, wind farms are less reliable and efficient than coal- or gas-fired power plants largely because wind comes and goes.

But utility companies say wind farms are a clean source of power and increasingly less expensive than they used to be. Wind, after all, is free, and after a wind farm is built, it takes fewer people to operate than a power plant.

In addition, some school districts, such as Laker Schools in the Thumb, have incorporated wind power to save money on electricity and teach kids about science and the environment, said Brion Dickens, who installed three, 80-foot tall turbines through a $265,000 state grant.

Right now, he said, the district’s turbines are not running because of a dispute over who should cover the cost of repairs. But he said the project illustrates wind’s potential. He said he’s working with other schools and districts as they develop renewable energy projects.

Michigan went from a capacity of 2.4 megawatts of wind power in 2007 to 287 megawatts in 2011, enough to power more than 120,000 homes. The state is expected to produce an additional 3,000 megawatts as more projects are developed, according to the NRDC.

Consumers Energy, based in Jackson, built its first wind farm, Lake Winds, on the west side of the state in Mason County in 2012. It has 56 turbines.

As a side benefit of the wind farm, the Ludington & Scottsville Area Chamber of Commerce offered bus tours so curiosity seekers could see the turbines up close. The chamber is no longer giving those tours, but a local operator, it said, has added the stops to its tours.

Consumers Energy is now building a second, $255-million wind farm, Cross Winds, in Tuscola County in the Thumb. It should be completed by the end of the year, said utility spokesman Brian Wheeler. Plans for the Cross Winds call for 62 turbines. The project also is expected to create about 150 construction jobs.

“Wind has high potential,” Wheeler said. “We think it’s a reliable source at an affordable price.”

Meanwhile, Consumers Energy is closing seven coal-burning power plants in Michigan, including the J.R. Whiting plant in Monroe County by April 2016, and is buying a natural gas-fueled plant, which emits far less carbon dioxide, in Jackson County.

Sorting requirements

DTE Energy, which has acquired wind development rights on 80,000 acres, is planning a fifth wind park, also in the Thumb.

The Detroit-based utility commissioned its first wind farm in 2012. The others are Thumb Wind in Huron and Sanilac counties; Gratiot County Wind in the middle of the state; Pheasant Run Wind, which was renamed Brookfield Wind, and Echo Wind, both also in Huron County.

Among renewable energy sources, wind is most abundant and economical, said Irene Dimitry, a DTE vice president. In her office, models of white, wind turbines — including one her son made out of Lego blocks — dot the window ledge.

Most of the wind farms are in the Thumb, she said, because the peninsula tends to be rural, and wind is strongest as it blows over water, then land, and heads back out to water.

Still, she added, there may be a limit to how many turbines a community will allow to be built, and winds tend to be strongest during spring and fall, the opposite seasons in Michigan of when power demand is highest. DTE and other utilities rely on other energy sources to compensate for this.

DTE generates about 70% of its power from coal-fired plants, she said, but is closing old coal plants and seeking to diversify its energy mix as the state and utilities look at the new EPA proposal and reduce emissions.

“We are still trying to process what that rule says,” Dimitry said. “We’ll have to put together a plan.”

DTE and Consumers Energy expect to meet their renewable energy target of 10% by the end of 2015, largely because of wind, and will consider building more wind parks.

This is good news for suppliers like Ventower, which started building giant towers for the wind turbines in 2011 and has been steadily growing.

The state estimates that since 2008, renewable energy investments by Consumers Energy and DTE have helped create more than 200 companies and about 2,500 jobs, mostly in construction.

Ventower, which operates a 115,000-square-foot factory, employs about 110 workers, said Scott Viciana.

Just about every day now, he said, trucks loaded with tower sections are leaving the factory to rumble up to the Thumb and other Midwest locations where the tower parts are being assembled and erected.

“From our perspective, wind has supported job growth and manufacturing,” Viciana said. “We’re a clear result of that.”