Details revealed during ‘community outreach’
LAPEER — DTE Energy Co. officials say a planned wind farm in northern Lapeer County could carry a price tag of up to $300 million, and that the number of people signing on to be involved has grown “substantially.”
Once operational, the project could consist of 50 to 60 wind turbines spread over the northern Lapeer County townships of Burnside, Burlington and North Branch.
However, DTE officials urge area residents to consider myriad variables likely to sculpt the final version of the wind farm’s site plan and timeline.
Those variables include zoning ordinance amendments under consideration by Burnside officials that DTE representatives claim would effectively make it impossible to erect a single wind turbine in that township specifically. The town- ship board could adopt the amendments as soon as Monday (Feb. 26).
“The current proposal will not allow wind in Burnside Township,” said Carla Gribbs, regional manager, DTE.
Gribbs — along with Matthew Wagner, manager of renewable energy development for DTE, and Cindy Hecht, a spokesperson for DTE — met with The County Press for more than two hours Monday.
Topics of discussion ranged from the potential economic benefit of a wind farm in the community to challenges DTE officials face in making it happen (including outside influencers trying to prevent expansion of wind energy projects in general).
Gribbs said the meeting with The County Press reflected the company’s ongoing community outreach efforts in the area.
“We think Lapeer, as a community, benefits from renewables,” Gribbs said. “There’s an economic benefit, and there is an environmental benefit, and there is support in the community.
“It’s not a campaign as much as it’s an ongoing piece of the conversation of community outreach so that you and the people that read your paper understand,” Gribbs told The County Press.
Wagner said currently, DTE has 89 easement agreements for wind development (more commonly called “wind leases”) in northern Lapeer County. The area covered by the agreements is “a little more than 15,000 acres of land,” Wagner said. He said the number of new signed leases has grown “substantially.”
Current plans for the wind farm do not extend beyond the confines of the three townships.
“We’re pretty excited,” Wagner said. “That’s quite a leap in three or four months.”
The County Press reported Oct. 8 that landowners in the area had signed the first 20 wind leases between July 7 and Sept. 26. Wagner said those initial wind leases represented about 3,000 acres of land.
The 40-year agreements (with an option for another 20 years) were recorded with the Lapeer County Register of Deeds.
Records in the Register of Deeds office show that since the story was first reported in October, no additional wind leases have been filed (as of Feb. 2, the most recent records available at press time).
However, Wagner said that will change soon.
“There’s a volume of agreements that we will start recording in phases,” he said, noting that there is “a whole process in evaluating” agreements and getting them approved.
“We will be starting to add additional recordings in a phased process frankly to deal with the volume that we’ve got,” Wagner said. “So you’ll start seeing those.”
The company isn’t done securing land for the wind farm, either.
“We’re still in the ‘acquiring easements’ and ‘community outreach’ phase,” Wagner said.
Wagner said the hope is to secure another roughly 10,000 acres before moving on with the next phase of the project.
At that point, DTE officials will begin a full-court press on collecting data about potential wind turbine locations. This will include looking at factors such as wind, weather and environment.
The company will then apply to the Midcontinent ISO (MISO) for an “electrical connection” that essentially will determine how much energy produced by DTE wind turbines can be transported via electrical wires.
Based on the information collected and granted permits for electrical connection, DTE planners will begin “siting” wind turbines, i.e. figuring out where it makes most sense to put the structures that generally top out at just under 500 feet (the highest point of the tip of a wind turbine blade when pointed straight up into the sky).
The company then will have to go through the processes of obtaining a slew of permits from the likes of the Federal Aviation Administration, Michigan Dept. of Environmental Quality, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Michigan Dept. of Transportation.
DTE then will turn efforts toward buying wind turbines.
“We haven’t even begun to think about procuring turbines for this project,” Wagner said. “But I can tell you in our past projects that the cost has been between $2 million and $3 million per turbine. My guess it will be slightly more (for the Lapeer project), but it’s hard to say.”
In Lapeer County, the costs could be $3 million to $4 million per turbine, Wagner said, “but it really is a function of how many turbines you’re buying, who you’re buying them from…there’s a lot of things that offset (the costs).”
The County Press asked specifically about total costs for the project.
“I’ll give you a range,” Wagner said. “I will say probably $200 million to $300 million.”
Ideally, DTE officials want the wind farm to produce 150 megawatts of energy.
Wagner said turbines would likely produce up to 3 megawatts each. Further, he confirmed that 50-60 turbines would be needed to reach the 150MW mark.
That raises one key question: Why is DTE setting up so many easement agreements if the intent isn’t to use each and every one?
Officials said factors such as setbacks (how far turbines can be from other things like houses) are likely to dramatically decrease the amount of land that is usable for the wind farm.
Both North Branch and Burlington townships have enacted moratoriums to develop and/or update zoning ordinances to address such factors (Burlington’s moratorium is for two years, North Branch’s is for one year, both were enacted last November.)
Burnside Township is closest to having an updated zoning ordinance that addresses commercial wind energy developments. The township board is set to discuss and possibly vote on recommended amendments to its zoning ordinance at next week’s meeting.
Tim Denney, Burnside Township attorney, said he has “given up predicting when the matter will be formally voted upon or what form it will take.”
“The township board has listened carefully to input from all sides,” Denney said. “After no less than three public hearings and other public meetings besides on the topic, the township board is likely close to a vote.”
Gribbs said there are concerns that Burnside officials will adopt amendments that are too restrictive. Even so, she said, the project is not entirely reliant on whatever officials in Burnside Township decide to do.
Communities that do end up hosting wind farms benefit, DTE officials said.
Specifically, Gribbs referred to “a pretty hefty sum” that will be paid in taxes.
“It does go to all,” she said. “It does benefit the township, and it’s the township’s choice of where to spend it.”
Wagner used Chandler Township in Huron County as an example.
“They’ve reported on an annual basis about $750,000 into their community (annually),” Wagner said. “About $120,000 of that went to their operating budget, about $15,000 went to their emergency budget, and about $600,000 of that went to their roads.”
“And that doesn’t include the county money, the school money…” Gribbs said.
Wagner said that during 2014-2016, Huron County reported about $27 million total “coming into the county.”
“I think Huron County has definitely seen a benefit as has Sanilac and Tuscola and Gratiot that have been the primary hosts to wind energy thus far,” Wagner said.
On paper, DTE’s plans for its Lapeer wind farm seem like a relatively clear flow chart.
The benefits, too, seem numerous.
So why does it appear to be a tough sell to some?
DTE officials said it’s largely about misinformation.
Gribbs said one source of misinformation has been word-of-mouth rumors about DTE’s plans and timelines for the project.
“One example would be I requested a document from one of the communities and immediately the clerk reported to the board that we were going to be in within two weeks and we were going to have a siting plan put forth,” Gribbs said.
Another problem, officials said, has been forces from outside of Lapeer County coming to the area and pushing “emotional buttons” of locals as part of their overall efforts to stymie growth of the wind energy business whenever possible, and for whatever motivations.
“There’s a lot more activity coming from outside these communities and coming into these communities and saying ‘You need to stop this right now,’” Wagner said. “It’s external influences coming in and saying “This is bad, bad, bad.”
That’s why, he said, the company is coming forward now and sharing details about its plan in Lapeer County.
“We’re really trying to make sure everybody sees both sides of this thing,” Wagner said.
Wagner said “there needs to be this process of learning and working things through and letting the community be educated as a whole.”