Wind Power from the Thumb

On the same day the United Nation’s issued another report detailing the dangers of climate change, I visited one of the many places in Michigan where people are trying to figure out how to generate electricity while avoiding damage to our environment. I found no panacea, but came away hopeful.  As with many challenges we face, the solution will likely come from smart people working through the complexities of science, policy, and nature.

The Thumb of Michigan, a broad peninsula of flat land that defines half of Saginaw Bay, is one of the windier places in the Great Lakes.  The difference in temperature between the sun-warmed land and the relatively cool waters of Lake Huron, as well as the weather systems that march across the continent, create frequent, strong, and relatively constant wind flows.  In 2006, DTE Energy began an effort to take advantage of this energy resource.  Now, DTE and several private entrepreneurs have changed the agricultural landscape of Huron County with almost 300 wind turbines.

Driving around the Thumb outside Bad Axe and Cass City on a spring day, almost every view includes tri-bladed towers as tall as cellphone towers.  They populate the horizon above the tan and white fields recovering from a long winter.  They peek out from behind a rural scene of farms and silos.  A few smaller ones stand next to a schoolyard demonstrating their potential. From a distance, the post and three arms on a calm day become part of the gray view of bare trees.   Do they belong here?  Are new windmills the modern tools that have always been part of a working, agricultural landscape? Are they a hazard to wildlife?  The view of things to come?

The Clean, Renewable and Efficient Energy Act, passed in 2008 by the Michigan Legislature, spurred DTE to build windmills in the Thumb, and elsewhere in the State. Consumers Energy is also investing in wind energy. The state-wide policy requires utilities to produce 10 percent of their energy from renewable resources by 2015, and in Michigan, where the sun is not so strong, wind energy is currently the easiest and most affordable way to generate electricity without using up natural resources, without polluting air or water, and without releasing more carbon dioxide into the warming atmosphere.  The legislation, Act 295, has created a boom in windmill installations, along with the appearance of a few solar energy panels, experiments in the use of biomass fuels, more burning of methane from landfills, and some new efforts to catch the energy in flowing water and waves.

At the end of 2013, almost seven percent of the energy production in Michigan came from renewable sources, and estimates are that the 10 percent goal will be met in the coming year. DTE Energy got a jump start by buying wind power from several private companies (the legislation requires that half of a utility’s energy be purchased from a third party) and by building five windmill parks, one in Gratiot County and four in the Thumb.  DTE now gets 9.5 percent of its power from renewable sources and is on track to reach its 10 percent target in the very near future.

While wind is perhaps one of the oldest and most elemental power sources, there was nothing low-tech on display when I had the opportunity to tour DTE’s facilities in the Thumb.  Standing in the Cass City command center, one looks at spatial information systems, big screen computer monitors, and digital read-outs that give real time data on the operations of 300 windmills.  Going out in the field, you learn about the innovation in materials that allow for lightweight blades and the aircraft technology that controls the pitch of the blades in response to the force and direction of the wind.  The construction of these high tech machines has added $750 million to the local property tax base.  Engineers are onsite or on-call and there is one technician employed to maintain every 10 windmills.

Birds and Bats don’t necessarily appreciate wind energy as much as green policy makers, but engineers certainly have considered wildlife in the design and location of wind parks.  The high towers and the spinning blades, the tips of which travel at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour, can kill creatures that come too close, and research shows that each mono-pole windmill will kill three to eight birds annually (the open lattice towers like on old farm windmills are much more dangerous).  Nationally, this adds up to several hundred thousand bird deaths, a number that is small in comparison to the millions of birds killed each year by vehicles, building, and domestic and feral cats. (The analysis, and debate, over the impact of windmills on wildlife is extensive; read this wikipedia entry for a thorough overview; also read this scientific paper from 2013).

More than the design of windmills, the biggest cause of concern is the location of tall towers and rotating blades in areas with high concentrations of birds.  Some of the earliest wind parks in California were unfortunately located in the path of migratory birds and in geographies favored by hawks and eagles.  In the Thumb, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was consulted before

development and careful attention has been paid to flyways and avian habitat.  No windmills are within three miles of the shore of Saginaw Bay where wetlands host migrating waterfowl.  Potential windmill sites have been passed over along river corridors and woods to minimize interference.  To assess the success of these siting efforts, DTE has just begun a year-long study by independent researchers to document what impact its windmills have on wildlife.  Nationally, additional research seeks to understand the relationship between windmill operation and the nocturnal flight behavior of bats.

The Greenest Energy Solution is a holy grail that underlies any discussion of energy, environment and climate change.  We all want a clean, affordable source of energy that imposes no risks to people or harm to the natural communities of which we are a part.  We have a legacy of burning coal in Michigan that has given us cheap electricity, but has also spread soot and acid rain. One of the Great Lakes environmental threats is the toxic mercury that falls from airborne coal emissions and accumulates in fish.  Natural gas is certainly cleaner to burn and has a smaller carbon footprint than coal, but its current abundance results from “fracking” which involves injecting chemical-laden water deep underground.  Nuclear power has very little impact on climate change, but we have yet to implement a solution to dispose of radioactive waste.  Solar power has become cheaper in recent years, but in Michigan, our grey weather limits its effectiveness.  No one energy source, wind power included, can offer the best or only answer to the question of how to get energy cheaply and cleanly.

Trustees of The Nature Conservancy

Complexity.  We have to embrace complexity to resolve the conundrum of producing electricity while addressing climate change. There are high-level complexities of international cooperation, government policy, and consumer behaviors. There are technological complexities that, if resolved, can offer more energy at less cost with the least impact.  There are site-specific complexities about where to locate any energy source. I saw all of these complexities at play in the Thumb, and I met engineers and technicians willing to tackle the questions and seek the best possible outcomes.

Complexity does not always seem welcome in the policy arena, or in popular media, or in cursory conversations.  Something about our mind wants a nice simple answer,  to divide the world into good versus bad, or to frame choices between black and white.  But we only have to look to nature to understand that complexity is normal. So too is diversity, and we should look for several answers to the energy and environment debate. To tackle climate change, we need to accept that we are dealing with perhaps the most complex system in nature, and perhaps the most difficult of policy decisions. From there, we need to proceed with our best thinking and our best efforts, and eschew narrow viewpoints and not over promise answers.

A windmill can be a beautiful thing, but it can also be deadly if in the wrong place. Like all human actions, efforts to provide new sources of energy can have both positive and negative outcomes.  Wind energy can, and should be, part of how we best balance our use of energy and our protection of the environment.  In Huron County, one can see the potential of wind energy to resolve some of the conflicts in climate change, but one can also see that complexity will be our companion as we move forward.

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