CORRECTION APPENDED: This story mistakenly quoted Ann Arbor Mayor John Hieftje as saying that there are 250 operational windmills in the thumb of Michigan. While the area could support that number of windmills, only 30 are being built.
All over campus Tuesday there were cries of “It’s so windy” as students hurried to class, clutching their belongings close to keep them from being lost to the powerful gusts.
But the participants in Energy Fest 2007 weren’t bothered at all when their presentation boards were blown around. The participants say Ann Arbor needs all the wind it can get if it wants to be more energy efficient.
The city has been working since 2005 to meet deadlines set by Mayor John Hieftje that require the city to get more of its energy from renewable sources. Hieftje says expanding reliance on wind power is crucial to meeting that goal.
Although there are currently no wind-harnessing turbines in Ann Arbor, the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners has enlisted a team called Wind Power Washtenaw that is working with a University class to determine the feasibility of building a wind farm in Washtenaw County.
Jeremy McCallion, one of the project’s planners, said for at least six months his team will test wind speed and consistency by placing poles with wind speed monitors on farms on the west side of Washtenaw County. With that data, researchers – aided by students in an Engineering class on wind energy taught by Prof. Jerry Keeler – will decide which places are the most suitable sites for wind turbines.
It’s not certain that turbines will be built in Ann Arbor, though.
Hieftje said wind turbines in Ann Arbor wouldn’t generate as much energy as coastal areas of Michigan that get strong winds from the Great Lakes. That means it would take a longer period of time to generate a return on an initial investment that could be up to $2 million per turbine.
Rich VanderVeen, the owner of a wind farm with two turbines in Mackinaw City, Mich., said the price of wind turbines is growing exponentially every year because of high demand. All turbine manufacturing companies have sold out of turbines through 2008.
“The whole world is going wind power,” he said.
Hieftje said even if Ann Arbor doesn’t build its own windmills, it’s willing to buy wind energy from the thumb area of Michigan, where the wind is faster and 30 windmills already exist.
“We are ready and willing to pay wind producers more for wind energy than for fossil fuels,” he said.
Hieftje said he would like to see wind energy available to all Ann Arbor residents and ultimately wants 100 percent of Ann Arbor’s energy to come from renewable sources. But there are political and physical barriers preventing that vision from becoming reality.
One is the local energy company.
“DTE Energy has not been proactive with obtaining (renewable) energy,” Hieftje said. “I just don’t see them being interested in wind energy.”
But DTE spokesman John Austerberry said DTE isn’t hesitant to develop renewable energy sources – as long as consumers will pay for them.
“It’s more expensive, but if customers are willing to pay a little bit extra, we’re willing to provide it,” he said.
Austerberry said there are currently 4,000 customers signed up for the GreenCurrents program that allows customers to receive a portion of their energy from renewable sources like wind.
He said the program was designed to promote the development of renewable sources as demand for them grows. For DTE, this alleviates the risk associated with supporting the new technology by putting the financial burden on the consumer, not the stockholder.
Larry Flowers, a team leader at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory who spoke Tuesday at the School of Natural Resources and Environment during Energy Fest, called this “the out for the utilities.”
DTE can dip its toe into renewables at its leisure, but energy companies in 25 other states are required by law to provide a certain percent of renewable energy to consumers.
There is no such law in Michigan.
“(Michigan) lacks the political will at the state level,” Hieftje said.
Ann Arbor City Council member Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3) works as an energy management liaison for the University. He said state regulations make it harder for people or groups who want to buy renewable energy to do so.
“A lot of organizations are going to have to contend with how to purchase renewable energy under current state regulatory structures,” Kunselman said.
Duncan Callaway, a University researcher in SNRE studying the implementation of wind energy, said he is optimistic about DTE’s GreenCurrents program. He said the demand for wind energy will soon be high enough that the company will want to sign a long-term contract for wind energy.
He is hopeful about harnessing wind near Ann Arbor, too.
“I think we’ll have turbines in two years in Washtenaw County,” Callaway said.