About twice a year I drive roundtrip between Michigan and Colorado, about 1,200 miles each way. Each time I marvel at the array of wind turbines – hundreds of them – on the high ridges along both sides of Interstate 80 in western Iowa. This in a state with mega-acres of corn grown to make ethanol.
In fact, Iowa ranked first in the nation in ethanol production last year, with Michigan in 11th place. And it gets the highest percentage of its electricity – about 25% — from wind, contrasted with Michigan’s 1%, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures for 2012.
Closer to home, I drove by Michigan’s largest wind turbine array in Gratiot County on my way from Lansing to Midland last fall.
Our state has about 675 operating wind turbines overall. Construction of Consumers Energy’s 62-turbine Cross Winds Energy Park in Tuscola County began last fall and is scheduled for completion this year.
As we’ve seen from the news, wind and other forms of alternative energy have critics here and elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.
- An appeals court has refused to order a southwestern New York town to extend an expired permit for a 29-turbine project. Allegany Wind’s project had been delayed by a community group’s opposition and by the town’s subsequent refusal to extend its permit. For more details, see my Great Lakes Echo story about the litigation
- A Canadian court has revived – at least temporarily – a wind farm project near Lake Ontario that had won approval by the provincial Ministry of the Environment but died in an administrative tribunal. The challenge came from environmental groups concerned about the project’s potential impact on a threatened turtle species, fragile soil and public health. The project remains on hold pending a further appeal.
- The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently ruled that Green Bay officials arbitrarily and wrongfully revoked a permit for a trash-to-energy plant proposed by a local Native American tribe.
In all three of these green-versus-green controversies, local opponents stymied projects by raising environmental concerns. Yet all three projects were intended to supply alternatives to the Great Lakes region’s current reliance on coal, natural gas and nuclear power for most of its electricity needs.
In the Ontario case which Alexandra Harakas wrote about for Great Lakes Echo, the group challenging the Ostrander Point project, Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, says, “We support renewable energy. But we also believe that wind turbines should never be built where they’re likely to cause significant harm to migrating birds, bats, butterflies and endangered species.”
Even alternative energy projects that are up and running can continue to generate controversy. As one speaker at the recent Fate of the Earth Symposium at Michigan State University observed, bats—which are the oldest living mammals in Michigan other than humans—are extremely slow to reproduce and vulnerable to wind turbines. “Bats are not like mice. They don’t breed like rabbits, more like elephants” explains Chris Hoving, the statewide specialist on climate adaptation at the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. His agency is working with the wind industry to reduce bat mortality.
In the Ludington, area, Consumer’s Energy and the Mason County Planning Commission are in discussion about more testing of sound at the Lake Winds Energy Park, according to the Ludington Daily News. The utility operates a 56-turbine project there.
A 2010 report by the state’s Great Lakes Wind Council identified five Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula “wind resource areas” deemed most suitable for offshore turbines: southern Lake Michigan near Berrien County; northern Lake Michigan near Delta County; central Lake Superior near Alger County; central Lake Huron out from Saginaw Bay; and southern Lake Huron out from Saginaw Bay.
However, last year, GOP Reps. Ray Franz of Onekama, Greg MacMaster of Kewadin, Tim Kelly of Saginaw Township, Pat Somerville of New Boston and Bob Genetski of Saugatuck, introduced legislation that would prohibit offshore wind turbines. All but Kelly represent shoreline districts.
Their bill is pending in the House Energy and Technology Committee.
The truth is that no alternative energy source is without its environmental costs. But as our demand for power continues and as existing fossil-fuel and nuclear plants age, the truth also is that Michigan and other Great Lakes states need to more aggressively explore alternatives.
That’s not to belittle the seriousness of conflicting environmental concerns raised by local citizens and their grassroots groups. To pursue their cause, they’re using legitimate avenues of protest – petitioning government for a redress of grievances, as the First Amendment puts it. Each side is also able to turn to the courts to resolve disputes, and they’ve demonstrated a willingness – and a deep-enough wallet – to do so.
We also see disagreement within the less-or-no-carbon fuel movement.
For example, at the Fate of the Earth Symposium, National Geographic executive editor for environment Dennis Dimick included nuclear power on his menu of possible steps to combat climate change. To be clear, Dimick wasn’t endorsing – or disendorsing – the nuclear option, just suggesting that it be considered as the only large-scale 24/7 non-carbon energy source that is now available.
Yet two other presenters at the symposium took an absolutely-no-nuclear stance. One was Professor Pia-Johanna Schweitzer of the University of Stuttgart, Germany, whose country is scheduled to phase out its nuclear plants over the next few decades. The other was Anne Woiwode, Michigan director of the Sierra Club, whose organization is embarked on a nationwide campaign to shut down all coal-fired plants in the United States.
I don’t envision a rush of Michigan communities volunteering to be the site of future nuclear plants – imagine the supercharged NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement that would trigger.
And the 2001 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan has made policymakers, utility companies, investors and government regulators even more wary about approving and financing such projects.
In the meantime, expect local public opposition to more wind, solar, biofuel and waste-to-energy projects that will delay or prevent their completion. That’s not necessarily bad, as long as everyone takes into consideration the larger picture.
Eric Freedman is the director of Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism. A similar version of this column appeared in Domemagazine.com.