Wind energy takes off in Michigan

Mar 21, 2011

Rick Wilson, the project manager for Heritage Sustainable Energy, is our guest this week as our “What’s Working” series continues. Based in Traverse City, Heritage Sustainable Energy is a wind power company that has been managing the installation of wind turbines in both the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan. Heritage is in the process of installing and expanding wind farms in the state, and is already producing roughly 40 megawatts of power. In 2008, Governor Granholm signed into a law a mandate stating that, by 2015, ten percent of Michigan’s power must come from renewable sources.

Wind power has been an issue of controversy in Michigan for the past several years, but Wilson says the industry is finally starting to take off in the state.

“It’s actually picked up steam, I think, since the 2008 legislation was passed. There’s been a lot of factors, a lot of moving parts, I think, in making the feasibility of wind come to fruition, and it combines both the requirement for utilities to purchase it from independent power producers and developers such as ourselves. To be a successful project, you really need a power purchase agreement… You really need that contract in order to finance and assure the security of the project because of the tremendous amount of equity and financing it takes to build a wind energy project.”

Although wind energy is still a relatively small industry in the state, Wilson says there are signs that it is headed in the right direction.

“It’s starting to happen. You know, things don’t happen overnight. It takes time… Not only the aspects of wind energy, how they fit into communities is starting to be more understood. You know, some of the issues surrounding wind energy – noise, relations to wildlife, scale – you know, really, they’re issues of concern for everybody that have to be addressed, but they are very able to be addressed with proper siting and proper locating of the turbines.”

In terms of the concerns many Michiganders have over the safety and environmental impacts of wind turbines, Mr. Wilson says some of that is attributable to the residents’ unfamiliarity with wind energy.

“The initial reaction, of course, like anything, especially a change in land use, is the fear of the unknown. You know, I think we’re starting to see enough development in Michigan where people can walk up to turbines and get fairly close to them and see them in the landscape, and hopefully that’s alleviating their fears.”        

While wind is not a power source that is constantly available, Wilson says our ability to capture its energy has been improving.

“Wind is an intermittent power-generation resource. The technology is getting much, much better even in the five or six years that we’ve been an industry. The turbines are getting to the point where, maybe it was a 25 to 27 percent capacity factor rating to now we’re seeing 35, 40, 45 percent capacity factors of these power generation facilities.”

By capacity factor, Wilson is referring to the percentage of energy produced by a turbine compared to the total amount that could possibly be produced if that turbine were running at 100 percent capacity 100 percent of the time. Wind fluctuates, so the capacity factor for a turbine could never be 100 percent. Because wind is not a constant source of energy, Wilson says there will always be a need for a separate, continuous source of power.

“You still need base load power, right? You still need a power source that is always available. And those power sources that we currently use are coal and nuclear and hydro to some extent.

The renewably sourced energy mandate passed by Granholm has opened  the door to new power sources. These other renewable sources, says Wilson, will be just as crucial as wind as Michigan develops its energy sources of the future.

What’s happening is we’re seeing that it’s sparking new technologies. When there’s a need, and a demand, technology seems to rise and peoples’ entrepreneurial spirits seem to come to the surface. There’s hydrogen, and there’s efficient use of natural gas, and things like that that’ll help balance the whole portfolio of energy sourcing. You know, one will not provide all of our energy.”

While wind is a source of clean, renewable energy, Wilson says wind power represents benefits for Michigan that aren’t just environmentally related.

“One of the things that I like to think, and that I believe, is that it’s a homegrown source of power that is critical to our everyday lives. Traditionally, here in Michigan, 80 percent, I think, of our power, especially in Lower Michigan, is coming from large, somewhat archaic (not all of them, but, you know) coal-fired facilities. They may not even be located in Michigan. Some of them are located down in the Ohio River Basin and Indiana and surrounding states. So, to have, not only renewable generation here in our home state, but also just power that’s generated right here in our back yard is something that’s important for us as a community and as a state.”               

Eliot Johnson - Michigan Radio Newsroom