SAGINAW, MI -- In the past decade, rural landscapes in the Thumb and elsewhere in Michigan have been radically altered by the advent of utility-scale wind farms.
Even if you haven't seen wind turbines towering over farmland, you might have seen the trucks hauling massive, white turbine blades on freeways.
Up close, the whirling blades of wind turbines stretch for miles and miles across parts of Mid-Michigan and the Thumb.
They are renewable energy signs of the times, welcomed by some, reviled by others.
Just this May, wind turbines hit the ballot box in Huron and Tuscola counties, where citizens voted "no" on proposals that would have allowed for more wind energy development in multiple townships.
Hailed as a job creator and part of the clean-energy solution for the future, they also are targets of complaints over noise, their blades causing a so-called "flicker effect" in the sunlight and their imprint upon the bucolic, rural landscape of Michigan.
Michigan's first wind farm came online in 2001. Several more followed in 2008 and 2012. Today, there are more than 20 wind farms operating in the state and more are under development. Most are located in the tip of the Thumb in Huron County, plus others in 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.
Public utilities, including Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, own and operate wind farms, sometimes called wind parks, 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.
"This was part of the new energy legislation the governor signed at the end of the year," said Cindy Hecht, senior communications specialist for DTE Energy. "Given that wind is the most efficient and cost-effective form of renewable energy, it will play an important role in helping DTE meet this goal."
Although it can take several years to plan a wind farm, the actual construction process typically takes six to nine months. Wind farms can operate for at least 20 to 25 years, Hecht said.
Easily the tallest things for miles around, wind turbines dwarf farmhouses, grain elevators, churches and the largest trees.
Wind turbines may vary in size. According to DTE, some turbines measure 479 feet at their highest point. That's 212 feet taller than the Michigan State Capitol and 174 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. The 164-foot blades are about as long as a football field is wide.
The wind farms are made possible by landowners, such as Larry and Jennifer Gillis, who sign up to host the turbines on their property in exchange for land lease payments.
"You have an actual, working relationship and it doesn't just end with the turbine going up and the check coming in the mail," Jennifer Gillis said, sitting across from her husband at their dining room table.
The Gillises live near Shepherd in Isabella County. They own farmland in both Isabella and Gratiot counties. They have one turbine on their property in Gratiot County -- it's part of the Gratiot County Wind park developed by Invenergy and DTE Energy -- and they are so pleased with the arrangement they hope to get a second turbine near where they live.
The Gillises declined to say how much they're paid to have a turbine on their property, but an official with NextEra, another wind farm developer with projects in Michigan, said a single turbine can mean a paycheck of $10,000 to $14,000 annually for a landowner. That means having a few turbines on one's property could potentially pay just as much as or more than the per capita income in some Mid-Michigan counties.
But the Gillises say they didn't do it for the money. They did it for their community, calling it a "win-win situation."
"(The Invenergy representative) explained the fact that these things pay huge amounts of taxes to the township for roads, schools," Larry Gillis said. "The roads down there are absolutely marvelous, if you go into Wheeler Township."
"Now they are," Jennifer Gillis interjected.
"Now they are," Larry Gillis agreed. "They used to be like corduroy."
Standing at the base of Larry and Jennifer Gillis's GE Energy-made turbine, one can hear a constant hum or buzzing and the sound of the massive blades cutting through the wind. The blades cast spinning shadows on the woods at the edge of the field where the tower stands. The noise wind turbines make is a point of contention. While some people who live near turbines say they can't hear them at all, others are bothered by the noise.
"Most people can't hear it, but they can feel it," said Mike Pattullo, landowner and member of the Ellington-Almer Township Concerned Citizens group. "Kind of like somebody's got their bass in their car."
While some people claim to suffer adverse health effects as a result of living near wind turbines, the wind energy industry disputes the charge.
Pattullo, who has 30 acres in Tuscola County's Almer Township, said he and other members of the citizens group have been wrongly accused of being "anti-wind."
"We have been anti-weak ordinance and anti-conflict of interest," he said. "We're not opposed to wind turbines. We're opposed to putting them too close to homes and encroaching (on) our property rights."
Wind turbines of Gratiot County
According to GE, wind turbines are typically located at least 300 meters, or about 984 feet, from the nearest home. At that distance, a turbine will have a sound pressure level of 43 decibels, which is about as loud as a refrigerator, according to the company.
Donna Harrison has a wind turbine on her farm where she lives in Gratiot County. She can see it from her house, while tending to the cows and horses, and while gardening.
"I always wanted a windmill here," she said.
She's concerned about the burning of fossil fuels and interested in alternative energy. And the quarterly land lease payments have "made a huge difference" for her family, she said.
Harrison said she can hear her turbine sometimes but isn't bothered by it. She finds the noise of vehicle traffic on her road to be more intrusive.
"As far as it being here, no, I have no problem with it," she said.
Terry Miller of Bay County is a founding member and chairman of the Lone Tree Council environmental group. He's also concerned about the burning of fossil fuels and believes wind energy is a critical step toward a clean-energy future.
"We're already seeing extreme weather events that are attributable to climate change," Miller said. "It's not something that is going to happen in the future. It's happening right now."
Indeed, this winter was among the 10 warmest on record, or since the early 20th century, according to MLive Chief Meteorologist Mark Torregrossa.
"Part of this is due to the warmer globe," he said.
'We did quite a bit, didn't we?'
Akron-Fairgrove Public School District in Tuscola County is one example of a beneficiary of wind farms, according to Superintendent Diane Foster.
The district serves seven townships and has approximately 280 students in preschool through 12th grade split between two buildings. In a photo of one of the buildings posted on the district's website, a wind turbine looms in the background.
"The only way that school districts are able to capture any financial benefit from the turbines is to levy a tax, to levy a debt," Foster explained. "So, in 2014, that is what we did."
The voters approved a millage that did not increase their taxes. "It was a zero-mill increase based on the increase of the SEVs (State Equalized Values)," Foster explained. As a result, they were able to capture just under $3 million, largely because of turbines, for a bond project to upgrade the school district buildings.
School upgrades made possible by the millage included new secure entries, electrical work, LED lighting, buses, new lockers, new windows, new boilers, bleachers, generators for both buildings, a new community center with exercise equipment at the high school, parking lot improvements. The list goes on.
"We did quite a bit, didn't we?" Foster reflected.
The school district also was able to add a drama program and a stage for school and community productions. In addition, a new technology program, supported largely by NextEra and Consumers Energy, ensures that every student who spends at least three of their four high school years at Akron-Fairgrove Public School District receives an iPad or Google Chromebook that they can keep after graduating.
When asked whether those things would have been possible without the wind farms, Foster replied, "Absolutely not. No. The wind farms, for our district, have been a wonderful contribution to the educational capabilities that we have here at Akron-Fairgrove."
'It's not farm community anymore'
Not everyone is happy about the advent of wind farms in Mid-Michigan and the Thumb.
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 more wind farms.
Noise and the so-called "flicker effect" created by wind turbines, 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 also say township boards are ill-equipped to write ordinances that adequately protect residents and property owners when wind farms come to town.
"The big issue is how far back do they put the wind turbines away from homes or property lines and how much noise do they allow to come off of them?" said Pattullo of the Ellington-Almer Township Concerned Citizens group and a landowner in Ellington Township since the 1980s.
"Wind turbines give off a very, very low-frequency, high-pressure sound wave that travels for miles and miles and miles and will go right through the walls of a house like it's not even there. It's difficult to hear for most people," he said.
"Matter of fact, it's such a low frequency that most people can't hear it, but a lot of people can feel it. Kind of like somebody's got their bass in their car a mile away."
While some people claim to suffer adverse health effects as a result of living near wind turbines, sometimes characterized as "Wind Turbine Syndrome," the wind energy industry disputes the charge.
The American Wind Energy Association, a national trade association representing the interests of the wind energy industry, addresses the topic of wind energy and human health on its website.
"Wind energy enjoys considerable public support, but wind energy detractors have publicized their concerns that the sounds emitted from wind turbines cause adverse health effects. These allegations of health-related impacts are not supported by science," according to the association.
"The credible peer-reviewed scientific data and various government reports in the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom refute the claim that wind farms cause negative health impacts."
Garry and Nancy Butcher live in Gratiot County's Wheeler Township. Although they have 700 acres, they declined to have any turbines built on their property.
"For one thing, they run cables under the ground and you can have trouble tiling," Garry Butcher said. "When I want to tile my field, I don't want to have to monkey with cables."
Nevertheless, their property is surrounded by turbines. Nancy Butcher said she doesn't like living among them.
"When they go 'round and 'round and they're in a certain place, you get shadows across your windows, and it looks like a red-light district at night," she said of the blinking red lights on the turbines. "They're just a pain."
The Butchers said they could have signed up -- they were approached by wind farm developers more than once -- but ultimately decided against it.
"That's just our viewpoint. People that got them, they wanted them. They wanted the green," Garry Butcher said.
Garry Butcher's twin brother Larry Butcher and his wife Marilyn Butcher live across the street. They didn't sign up to have turbines on their farm, either.
Marilyn Butcher said they have lived there for about 40 years -- her husband and brother-in-law were born in a house that once stood nearby -- and she has seen the rural landscape change dramatically since the wind farms were developed.
"When you're just looking out your car window across the landscape, I mean, it's not farm community anymore. It's farm community with turbines," she said. "And as far as what it would do to the value of a home out here, I don't know if it would decrease it or if it would stay the same. But, to me, it doesn't look as nice as it used to."
'A great engine of growth'
The American Wind Energy Association details the environmental and economic benefits the wind energy industry has in Michigan on its website.
According to the association, the state ranks 14th for installed wind capacity at 1,760 megawatts.
Michigan has 25 wind projects online and 1,003 turbines. Wind accounts for about 4 percent of Michigan's in-state energy production.
The industry either directly or indirectly supported between 2,001 and 3,000 jobs in Michigan in 2016, total capital investment through 2016 was $3.1 billion and annual land lease payments total between $1 million and $5 million.
Bryan Garner, manager of communications for Florida-based wind farm developer NextEra, says wind energy "is a great engine of growth for the state and for local communities." It creates jobs, benefits local businesses, provides a guaranteed income to farmers who host turbines on their land and boosts the tax base of local communities.
A typical wind farm creates 200 to 250 construction jobs. Once operational, a wind farm employs seven to 12 full-time workers, including wind technicians, managers and office personnel, he said.
"A lot of the folks we hire are local, so these are people who are able to continue to live and work and raise families in the communities or in the state that they grew up in and work for a Fortune 150 company with great, you know, salary and benefits and career prospects," Garner said.
"Also, wind farms provide a tremendous increase in the tax base of local communities. It can be millions of dollars over the life of a wind project, which is usually estimated to be around 30 years."
Garner said wind farms are a good thing for local farmers, such as the Gillises, too.
"It allows them to host a wind farm on their property, host a wind turbine, earn regular lease payments that are the same regardless of what the weather is, regardless of what the commodity prices are, and continue to farm around it," he said. "A wind turbine only takes up less than one acre of land."
Then there are the environmental benefits. Generating wind power creates no emissions and uses virtually no water, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
In 2016, wind farms in Michigan saved 757 million gallons of water, based on national average water consumption factors for coal and gas plants, and 1.2 million metric tons of state carbon dioxide emissions were avoided, according to the association. A 100-megawatt wind farm can generate enough power for 45,000 houses continuously.
Meteorologist Torregrossa said "Michigan is a perfect place for wind energy."
"Wind is good in Michigan because we have water next to land and that's a wind recipe," he said. "Land heats up faster than water does. Temperature differences, large scale temperature differences, develop and that's where wind comes in."
Garner said wind is "homegrown energy."
"It's something that people can be proud of because you're contributing to the state and the country's energy independence and not having to rely on other countries for sources of fuel and energy."