This story incorrectly identified the cost of Noble Environmental Power’s wind turbine construction project. The actual cost is $90 million. This story also mistakenly described the second phase of the project. It should have said the second phase has added seven leases, bringing the total number of wind turbines to 39. Correction Appended

Morgan Morel
The Mackinaw City wind turbines, constructed in 2000, are located south of the city. Michigan currently has three wind turbines. (A.J. HOGG/For the Daily)

TRAVERSE CITY – Fossil fuels provide the vast majority of Michigan’s electrical power. While people may complain about rising energy costs, it’s the environment that is paying the highest price. After all, your electricity bill doesn’t account for pollutants like carbon dioxide affecting climate change, or for particle soot, toxic mercury, nitrous dioxide and sulfur dioxide, which contribute to acid rain and overall air pollution.

But there’s a lot Michigan can do to reduce its dependence on these fossil fuels.

In a promising step forward, by the end of this year, Michigan’s wind-power generation capacity will increase to 20 times its current capacity of 2.4 megawatts. At that point, 48 megawatts of power will be available, capable of producing enough energy for about 16,000 homes.

Noble Environmental Power is building 32 wind turbines in the first phase of its Ubly wind farm, located in Bingham Township. Each turbine is capable of generating 1.5 megawatts of electricity. The company plans to have all 32 completed by the end of the year.

Currently only three large-scale wind turbines operate in Michigan. Traverse City Light and Power, a community-owned electric utility, runs a 0.6 megawatt wind turbine, and Mackinaw City runs two rated at 0.9 megawatts.

NEP has already begun work on the next phase of its Ubly wind farm, with seven more leases signed, bringing the total cost of the project to about $90 million. The second phase will add 7 wing turbines, bringing the total to 39. The company’s ultimate goal is to have approximately 250 wind turbines scattered along 40-miles of glacial ridge in Michigan’s Thumb. This would add more than 300 megawatts of capacity, propelling Michigan to the forefront of wind power.

NEP spokeswoman Julie Harker-Leigh said the wind turbines will be very spread out: with only one turbine per 150 acres.

“We feel this allows the farmer to farm the land as he always has,” she said.

Farmers lease square plots of land to NEP, and the company builds a wind turbine and a transformer on it. The wind tubine in Traverse City is built on a 100-foot square.

“(The farmer) makes more on this 100-foot square than he does on the rest of the field,” said Jim Cooper, marketing manager at TCLP.

Wind up north

Michigan has had wind power since 1996, when Traverse City Light and Power built a wind turbine at the base of the Leelanau Peninsula. Over the past 10 years, it has generated enough electricity each year to power 160 homes in the Traverse City area. That equals 1 million kilowatt-hours.

The company’s wind turbine is built on a ridge west of downtown Traverse City.

“This is a small one – now,” said Cooper, of the 0.6-megawatt wind turbine. Today’s state-of-the-art turbines exceed 3.5 megawatts. “It was the biggest in the U.S. when it went up.”

It still doesn’t look small. The equipment sits on top of a tower a half a football field high. It’s difficult to tilt your neck far enough back, standing at the base of the turbine, to watch it rotate. The rotor, 144 feet in diameter, looks elegant and graceful, each of the three blades swooping through the air, making about as much noise as a quiet dishwasher. It is easy to carry on a conversation without raising your voice. You wouldn’t guess the tips of the blades above move faster than 100 miles per hour.

Generating electricity with a turbine is based on simple physics. By rotating a magnet inside a coil of wire, the magnet can move electrons along the wire, generating an electrical current. The process is reversible, so it is possible to make a magnet spin by running a current through a wire. This is exactly how a fan or any other electric motor works.

How you make the magnet spin doesn’t matter. You can spin it with steam generated by nuclear fission, burning oil, gas or biomass. You can use water falling over a dam. Or you can let the wind do the work for you.

In wind turbines, the generator is located inside the pod, or nacelle, at the top of the tower. The rotors are connected to a drive shaft that turns the generator.

Thick black cables channel the electrical power down the inside of the hollow tower. Just inside its access door a small panel sitting at ground level indicates how much power is being generated, as well as current wind speed and direction.

A computer monitors the amount of electricity the wind turbine is feeding the electrical grid. A transformer sits next to the tower, converting the generated 480 volts into a voltage better suited for transmission along power lines.

The Traverse City Light and Power wind turbine can generate electricity when the wind speed is between 10 and 32 miles per hour. The rotor blades rotate along their central axes, so they can adjust the angle they present to the wind to maximize efficiency, in the same way a sailor trims sails to use the wind most effectively.

The entire nacelle and rotor construct tracks wind direction, keeping the wind turbine facing the wind, which maximizes efficiency.

In 2000, Mackinaw City erected two 0.9-megawatt turbines south of the city, near its water treatment plant. If you drive north on I-75, the blades of the wind turbines are visible to the left of the highway, while crossing the Mackinac Bridge. Just over the trees, they are the same monumental white as the bridge and just as magnificent and useful.

The Mackinaw City turbines are no louder than the Traverse City Light and Power wind turbine. That is, when they are not drowned out over the sound of snowmobiles hurtling down the trail, the baying of dogs at a kennel near the road, or the hum of the nearby freeway.

Funding Michigan’s windy future

The U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that Michigan has the potential for more than 16,500 megawatts of onshore wind energy generation, and nearly 45,000 megawatts offshore. Being a peninsula, Michigan has a huge advantage over other states – the flat lakes let the wind build up to strong, consistent speeds. Inland, ridges and hills close to flatter areas give similar advantages.

The cost of constructing the equipment has deterred the state from moving anywhere near its potential.

“To finance a wind project, you need a lot of backing right away,” said Steve Schnell, Mackinaw City’s community development director.

Traverse City solved this problem with a “green rate.” “The whole idea started at Traverse City Light and Power,” Cooper said. “You figure cost of a turbine with installation, then how much to operate it, then take off cost of power. The difference is how much the customer pays as premium.”

Last year, Traverse City Light and Power customers paid a 2-cent per kilowatt-hour premium for their green rate.

Renewable, ‘green’ energy sources include wind, biomass, geothermal and solar energy.

The company requires that interested customers buy all of their power at the green rate, but Cooper said that might change so that customers can opt to buy 100 or 200 kilowatt-hour blocks at green rate – similar to the method used by other suppliers. Consumers Energy, a utility provider that serves much of the Lower peninsula, has a program called “Green Generation.” It allows customers to buy renewably-generated energy for a premium in blocks of 150 kilowatt-hours. They can commit to renewable energy for their entire energy bill and also for a premium.

The Mackinaw City wind turbines sell their power to Consumers Energy. So will Noble Power once they are on line.

DTE Energy, which serves Southeastern Michigan, does not generate electricity with wind energy, but instead offers green rates through biomass fuel.

Another way to encourage renewable energy generation is for states to pass a renewable portfolio standard. This requires electric utilities to generate a certain percentage of their power from renewable sources.

Currently, 21 states and Washington D.C. have enacted these standards. Michigan has two bills in the state House Committee on Energy and Technology. One is co-sponsored by Rep. Chris Kolb (D-Ann Arbor). The bill requires 7 percent renewable in the first year and steps that up to 15 percent in the following 10 years. The second introduces steps starting at 4 percent and ending at 7 percent 10 years later.

Both were introduced in early 2005, and both are still in committee with no movement.

The renewable energy standard portfolio guarantees that a market for renewable energy will exist in a state, which is expected to encourage investment in renewable energy. Between 1998 and 2003, data from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the American Wind Energy Association indicate that 74 percent of new wind capacity was built in states with a renewable energy portfolio standard.

Closer to home, none of the University’s electrical power is renewably generated, said Bill Verge, Associate Director for Utilities and Plant Engineering. Currently the University generates some of its power on campus at its Central Power Plant at Huron and Glen streets, just east of the Power Center for the Performing Arts. It purchases the remainder from DTE. Last September, Mayor John Hieftje (D-Ann Arbor), issued a green energy challenge to the city calling for Ann Arbor to produce 20 percent green energy for municipal operations by 2010.

The University is interested in using wind-generated electricity, and is exploring the possibility of forming a purchasing consortium of Michigan universities. At a recent meeting, the University and Oakland University invited other state universities and industry representatives to get together.

“We wanted to help other universities learn about wind,” Verge said.

Additionally, the University has done a preliminary study of wind potential on University property.

Verge pointed out that wind alone is insufficient to consistently produce the amount of electricity the University needs, particularly at present.

“The wind industry is very immature,” Verge said. “One of the problems with wind is that it’s not blowing all the time. Someone’s got to fill in the valleys.”

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