Wind vs. View

Yesterday afternoon I was at a gathering about Michigan’s energy options and happened to run into Don Coe, a partner in Black Star Farms, the vineyard and B&B about 15 minutes north of Traverse City, on Leelanau Peninsula. Coe often describes himself as a farmer, which is true, since Black Star Farms grows grapes and orchard fruit, but the title doesn’t fully encompass his experience. Coe also worked in the upper echelons of a major distiller and ran their government relations operation prior to becoming involved with Black Star Farms. He is also a commissioner on the state’s agriculture board.

A central topic of yesterday’s meeting was the coal-fired power plant that Wolverine Power intends to build in Rogers City. Coe, as a farmer and a businessman with a big electric bill to pay, naturally wanted to know what the realistic alternatives would be if the coal plant did not move forward—and most people in the room definitely did not want the plant to succeed. Coe tempered the optimism about alternatives with a real-world experience regarding obstacles that he encountered when trying to build a windmill on his farm.

Coe had Wolverine Power, which has developed wind expertise alongside its traditional power supply expertise, send its team of site evaluators out to do the cost and power analysis for a wind turbine. “Windmills have been providing power to farms for a century, they’re a part of rural America,” Coe says. (Granted, windmills were smaller back in the day, but point taken.) The problem that Coe ran into is that local zoning prevents any turbine higher than 100 feet. That height restriction makes it pretty much a non-viable idea from a commercial energy standpoint—commercial wind turbines are typically 450 feet tall at the top of the blade sweep, and windmill efficiency decreases dramatically as turbines shrink in size.

People love their landscape in Northern Michigan, and unfortunately for alternative energy advancement, the best wind and the most beautiful places are often one and the same. Love of the landscape is undoubtedly a large driving force behind the 100-foot limit that has vexed Coe.

I have no doubt that we will see much more of this sort of dilemma—wind vs landscape—as we move down the new energy highway. Some people, including former Northern Michigan state legislator Howard Walker, have proposed passing rules at the state level that would override local zoning jurisdiction when it comes to siting commercial scale wind turbines. I have a feeling that the pressure to adopt statewide rules will increase, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pass in the next couple / few years if Michigan doesn’t move faster in its effort to expand alternative energy supplies.

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