Wind gets cheaper, but energy for building turbines wanes

Apr 3, 2015

Michigan has a number of wind farms because the state basically made them mandatory in 2008. That was when lawmakers decided a certain amount of our electricity must come from renewable resources, and utilities built wind turbines to comply.

Credit Tom Carr

Now, wind energy is, by some measurements, among the cheapest ways to keep the lights on. But nobody seems to be rushing to build more.

In fact, the man who has developed the wind farms we have in northern Michigan says his enthusiasm for wind is waning.

Marty Lagina used to drill for natural gas. His new company, Heritage Sustainable Energy in Traverse City, builds wind farms and Lagina has been surprised by how angry it makes the neighbors.

“We thought we were doing something really good,” he says. “We still do but to be the target of these vicious attacks, it gets old pretty quickly.”

Heritage has been sued in both counties it has built wind farms, and also has filed one lawsuit of its own.

The most recent suit against the company claims turbines on the Garden Peninsula in the UP are a threat to human health and the lives of birds. Lagina finds some criticisms of wind energy ridiculous, but he will acknowledge there are issues, like the noise.

“They make some sound and to some people, at least ostensibly, it’s very aggravating,” he says.

Worth the noise?

Even though the cost of building a wind farm today is less than half of what it was when he started about five years, Lagina isn’t sure it's worth the trouble.

“The wind industry is sort of on the cusp of being the low cost producer,” he says. “But the big obstacle went from price to this pushback.”

But pushback from the neighbors is not the only problem. Not everyone in the electricity business thinks wind is a good deal. Dan Dasho at Cloverland Electric Cooperative in Sault Ste. Marie is one skeptic.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who are thinking about projects but they could find no one to buy the output,” he says.

Cloverland supplies electricity to the eastern Upper Peninsula and Dasho says the cooperative will be looking to burn natural gas to meet its electricity needs in the future. Dasho says the problem with wind is it doesn’t blow all the time.

“So what do you do for the rest of the time?” he asks. “Well, you’ve got to have a gas generators to back up that wind. So the cost of wind isn’t just the wind generator, it's wind plus gas so you have the capacity there when you need it.”

Looking Inland

Wind proponents contest that math. Skip Pruss was the state’s chief energy officer in the Granholm administration and now has a consulting business called 5 Lakes Energy. Pruss says all energy generators need back up and the electricity is fed into a common market.

“Every generating source, whether it’s a coal plant, a natural gas plant or a wind farm or a solar farm, that is back up by other generation sources,” he says.

And Pruss says the cost of backing up wind power is negligible.

He says people living in coastal areas like Benzie County and Leelanau County may never warm up to wind farms. But he says new studies have shown the wind blows better than they thought in the center of the Lower Peninsula.

“We can build a lot more wind capacity in central Michigan, in agricultural areas where wind becomes the most reliable revenue stream and crop or harvest for farmers,” he says.

But even some farming communities are tired of windmills. Most wind farms in Michigan are in Huron County. The county has drafted a moratorium on new ones and is set to vote on it this week.