BEAVER TWP, MI -- DTE Energy is exploring the possibility of developing a wind farm in Bay County.
It's a prospect that has some residents concerned, while others are ready to sign on the dotted line.
Beaver Township, a community of about 2,800 located 18 miles northwest of Bay City, is among the places DTE is looking.
"Long story short, Detroit Edison, DTE, has been in Beaver Township on the ground for about six months or so talking with farmers and larger, attractive landowners, purchasing the wind rights to those properties," said Beaver Township Supervisor Steve Gray. "The longer they're in the community talking to folks, the more the word was starting to get out."
There are no wind turbines in Beaver Township and the township has never addressed wind energy in its zoning ordinance, which needs updating, Gray said. So, in August, the Beaver Township Board of Trustees enacted an 18-month moratorium on wind energy.
"(The moratorium) is not saying they can't be there, it's just calling a timeout because we're, you know, not prepared to have the discussion at this point," Gray explained.
An informational meeting took place Tuesday, Sept. 5, at a Beaver Township church. Gray said he organized the meeting at the request of a couple farmers who were unhappy about the moratorium. They wanted a special meeting to talk about the pros and cons of wind energy.
"I thought it went pretty well. Everybody was respectful of each other. We got a lot of information out," Gray said. "I was disappointed, however, DTE, when they could not dictate all the rules of the meeting, they pulled out on me."
Gray said at least 225 concerned citizens attended the meeting. Elizabeth Kornacki was one of them.
Kornacki moved to Beaver Township from Midland about three years ago. A retired pharmacy technician, Kornacki bought a house on 3.5 acres on the Kawkawlin River where she enjoys watching wildlife and the night sky.
She worries about how a wind farm could change that quiet country setting.
"I'm looking at woods. I'm looking at stars. I'm looking at bats," Kornacki said. "If turbines were to go forward, I would sell."
"I would sell before they start digging the first hole," she added. "But I don't think the people of Beaver Township are gong to let that happen, I really don't."
Matt Wagner, renewable energy development manager for DTE, said Tuesday's meeting was intended to be a learning opportunity for area residents and landowners. But these types of meetings, he said, tend to "generate controversy" rather than inform.
DTE decided not to send any representatives to the meeting and issued the following statement:
"As the state's largest investor in renewable energy, DTE Energy has collaboratively engaged with communities across Michigan to drive investments of $2 billion in wind energy since 2008, creating hundreds of jobs for residents and a local tax revenue for communities while delivering reliable, affordable and clean energy for our 2.2 million Michigan customers.
"DTE has decided not to participate in the Beaver Township public meeting on Sept. 5 because we do not believe the format will provide a balanced discussion on the development of wind parks. As a transparent and accessible partner in communities where we live and serve around the state, we plan to host public engagements with the residents of Beaver Township and surrounding municipalities in the near future. We see these as opportunities for residents to have their questions and concerns addressed in a thorough and respectful way, and present a balanced representation of wind farm developments, including the economic benefits to the community."
The meeting did include a presentation by Kevon Martis, director of the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition. Martis, who lives in Lenawaee County's Riga Township where he served as a planning commissioner from about 2004 to 2010, said the volunteers and activists involved with IICC are not opposed to wind energy, they're "advocates for equitable wind energy zoning."
He talked about Riga Township's wind ordinance, which he helped draft, and "why we think it's an equitable and fair approach to wind regulation as opposed to the types of demands that entities like Detroit Edison make of local communities."
Martis said a wind farm never came to Riga Township.
"(Our ordinance says) the setback distances and noise limits from wind turbines should not be measured from the bedroom window of a house or the exterior wall of a house. We think that those setbacks should be to a property line," he said.
"If I didn't lease my property to the wind development, then the noise and other effects of the wind turbines should not come onto that private property. And that's the ordinance that we put together and the wind companies always reject that."
Gray said a representative of the International Union of Operating Engineers also spoke at the meeting in support of wind farms.
Controversy over wind farms in Mid-Michigan and the Thumb is nothing new.
In the last 16 years, more than 20 wind farms, sometimes called wind parks, have been developed in rural communities in the Thumb and across the state and there are plans to build more.
These utility-scale wind farms are concentrated in the tip of the Thumb in Huron County, plus Tuscola, Sanilac, Saginaw, Bay, Gratiot and Isabella counties. A few more are located on the west side of the state and in the northern Lower and Upper peninsulas. They have pleasant names, such as Apple Blossom, Big Turtle, Garden Wind Farm and Pine River Wind. Wind farm developers, such as NextEra Energy, own and operate some of them. Public utilities, including Consumers Energy and DTE, also own and operate some and purchase power from others in an effort to satisfy the state's renewable energy portfolio mandate for utilities -- a 15 percent renewable requirement by 2021.
For environmentalists, wind farm developers, and property owners who receive royalties for hosting wind turbines and related infrastructure on their property, wind farms represent economic opportunity and a step toward a clean-energy future. They provide additional income to farmers, create jobs and are a boon to the tax base.
According to the American Wind Energy Association, the U.S. wind energy industry drives economic development in all 50 states, particularly in rural areas in need of investment, and currently supports more than 100,000 jobs across the country.
"The wind farms generate millions of dollars in property tax that the communities can use" for schools, roads, libraries and other things, said Cindy Hecht, senior communications specialist for DTE.
But for others, the wind farms developing next door are cause for concern.
In some communities, people have banded together, attending meetings and collecting signatures. Township officials in at least a few parts of Tuscola County have placed moratoriums on the developments. In May, voters in some Michigan communities rejected proposals that would have allowed wind farms.
Noise and the so-called "flicker effect" created by wind turbines, blinking red lights at night, proximity to neighboring property lines and nearby houses, the potential effect on property values, aesthetics, physical safety and potential conflicts of interest by local government officials approving the developments are among the concerns raised by opponents. Some say township boards are ill-equipped to write ordinances that adequately protect residents and property owners when wind farms come to town.
Kornacki said these concerns and more were raised during Tuesday's meeting. Her primary concerns are what the development of a wind farm might do to her property value and the effect on wildlife, such as birds and bats.
She realizes that even if she doesn't sign up, her neighbors might.
"I'm sitting on 3.5 acres. Nobody's putting a turbine on my property, but they can put it across the street," she said.
Wagner said DTE has no formal plans for a wind farm in Beaver Township or elsewhere in Bay County yet. At this point, the company is reaching out to landowners and gauging their interest.
"We're looking at a variety of areas within Michigan. We're really just exploring at this point. We're talking to landowners," he said.
Some landowners are interested, he said. Some have already signed agreements.
"These agreements help give us the ability to do studies on their land and, if a project goes forward, it allows us to locate turbines on a landowner's property and other related infrastrucutre," he explained.
For landowners who agree to host wind turbines and related infrastructure on their property, there's money. Having a single turbine on one's farm, which takes approximately one acre of land, can pay an estimated $5,000 or more per year, Wagner said.
"It's, frankly, a way for a landowner to continue to farm but also earn some money in addition to their farming business," he said.
Wind farms have an estimated lifespan of approximately 25 years. When a DTE wind farm has reached the end of its useful life, Wagner explained, the company will decommission it, as required by applicable zoning ordinances.
"We're required to have a plan and show that we have the financial means to decommission those turbines and, actually, it's in our agreements with landowners, too," he said.
Wagner said the interest DTE has found among landowners in Bay County is encouraging.
"We like that. We're going to continue to pursue that."
Gray said the township has solicited bids from several firms to redo the township's zoning ordinance and create a wind ordinance. The board is expected to vote to hire one of them on Monday, Sept. 25.
"My plan is to put together a very strong wind ordinance that protects our homeowners and then take that ordinance to the people (on the April ballot)," he said.
"If they reject it, the planning commission will have to go back to work and we would have to go back to a vote another time. So we'll have to see how it all goes. It's kind of a step at a time here."