Dig deep enough in the right spot, and you’ll find remnants of a wind pump foundation buried on most established Michigan farmsteads.
Electricity eventually rendered the ingeniously practical, if not stubby lattice-work designs inefficient and obsolete, since during the hottest, calmest days of summer, livestock demanded water that couldn’t easily be moved without a benevolent breeze and a downhill flow.
It appears that changing entrenched opinions about modern wind towers is like pushing water uphill too.
It’s not for lack of trying from both sides. But no matter how badly farmers need the income, and no matter how much rural township officials tout the benefits of increased tax revenue, decreased reliance on fossil fuels and the government-mandated need for wind-generated electricity, politics spins its massive blades.
When social media blows its often emotional and partially informed hot air into the mix, political messes turn into personal attacks, recall threats and, as is the case in Isabella County, divided communities.
It’s all happened before, of course. Opposition to wind energy in five Isabella County townships (Gilmore, Nottawa, Denver, Isabella and Vernon) in which farmers are currently signing agreements to establish a 180-tower wind project is not sheerly a widespread grassroots effort.
Opposition comes primarily from the Interstate Informed Citizens Coalition (IICC), which describes itself on its website as a “non-profit corporation dedicated to raising public awareness of the potential impacts from the construction of industrial wind turbines in our region.”
The description of the coalition then asks for a “generous donation” and in a much smaller font, explains that it is not a tax-exempt non-profit corporation, and warns that “your donation is not tax deductible.”
While there is some local animosity toward IICC and its perceived “outsider” meddling in Isabella County, Kevon Martis, its director, said his concerns over wind energy are “fundamentally safety issues,” and contends that IICC is “not fossil-fuel funded” despite his “Senior Policy Fellow” listing for a Washington lobbying group called the Energy and Environment Legal Institute, which seems to be a politically right-leaning group of attorneys. It calls itself the “national leader in strategic free market environmental litigation.” However, accusations persist that it has ties to the oil and gas industry.
Martis denies such allegations, and said his involvement in Isabella came when one township supervisor invited him to give balance to the information provided by the wind project developer, Apex Clean Energy.
“The developers like to play the game that we’re outside agitators,” Martis said, “but I donate my time to (fight wind development) because of what it did to my community (in Lenawee County).”
It’s difficult to argue that wind projects divide communities, but it’s also difficult to deny the economic benefits of harvesting wind, especially for farmers.
In Gratiot County, where two wind projects currently operate, “wind development has provided numerous benefits including a $330 million increase to Gratiot’s tax base and an additional $10.37 million in tax revenue since 2012,” according to the county’s information.
While Martis didn’t dispute the figures, he said energy bills will go up when wind energy is part of the overall mix, but offered no statistical sources to back that up. Instead, he accused the townships of collusion to benefit local government officials.
“Our experience is that wind developers look to counties that need revenue and are unzoned,” he said. “They harvest the officials first, then the wind. In this case, at the township level, officials that have already signed leases conspired together, then in addition, conspired to add a three-mill tax increase to pay for zoning. It’s clear collusion to put this poison pill together.”
On the township side, what Martis calls collusion is merely looking out for the best interests of the citizens, said one township trustee who wished not to be named in this story because personal attacks and threats have been leveled against him.
“How can it be a conflict of interest when every resident in this township will benefit from the tax revenue?” he asked. “When we looked for information about the pooling agreement, we got our information from independent sources, not the windmill company,” he said. “In the social media posts from the anti-wind group, all we get is lies and threats. To my knowledge, Apex has never lied to us. The other side has spread nothing but lies.”
The pooling agreement, according to Apex Clean Energy’s Public Affairs Manager Albert Jongewaard, pays leasing landowners by the acre, but also issues a minimum of $1,000 per year to people who have signed up for the pooling agreement but will never have a tower on their property; and who own as little as a half-acre and a house.
As Apex Clean Energy continues to pursue leases to put the wind project together, Martis’s group has promoted a political tactic. It has succeeded in putting proposals on the August primary election ballot that call for each township to develop its own zoning boards and ordinances.
Currently, the five townships are regulated by county zoning, which stipulates wind tower setbacks, noise levels and height restrictions. A request for comment from Isabella County was not returned.
“In essence, by trying to have each township have its own zoning, they’re trying to zone wind out,” said Matt Kapp, government relations specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau. “Each township has the right to do that, because there is no law that prevents them. Townships have tried similar tactics to zone out farming, but farmers operate under the Right-to-Farm Act, which supersedes local rules.”
Presently, Michigan Farm Bureau policy is against preemptive zoning. It reads: “We recommend legislation and zoning that will enable the production of energy on farms… Specific zoning for the production of alternative energy should include adoption of the state siting guidelines, taking into account sound science.”
Sound science, in the social media age, however, seems to be a matter of opinion, driven by fear.
Accusations of health problems caused by wind turbines, in fact, have been challenged by at least 17 separate studies from various sources, including the U.S. National Research Council, the Swedish EPA, the U.K. Health Protection Agency and other U.S. state studies.
Still, social media tends to pump fear and invoke corporate mistrust, which is something DTE Energy has encountered with its wind projects. DTE has no current interest in the Isabella project.
“Some people are trying to say that the people who build the towers have no responsibility for them after they’re built,” said Matt Wagner, manager of renewable energy development for DTE. “For us, if we’re in a contract, we know we are guests on the land. Our agreements are pretty rigorous. The terms provide that both the landowner and the company have obligations. Our agreements protect the landowner interests in using the land according to the original (lease) designer.”
In Isabella County, wind leases and the pooling agreement were very tightly scrutinized, said the township trustee who wished not to be named.
“We were approached by three different developers, and we (the townships which got together to investigate the project) hired an attorney experienced in wind leases,” he said. “We think we have a contract that is more iron-clad than the others.”
Agreements also meet or exceed all the requirements of Isabella County’s zoning ordinances, said Clean Energy’s Jongewaard.
“We have a good, buildable project that meets all the requirements of the ordinance and does something good (economically) for the community,” he said. “One ordinance requirement is a noise restriction of 55 decibels for an occupied residence, and our new technology is at 50. Setbacks, too, can be confusing, because there are about 15 different layers to them, but our towers go beyond just distances from the house or property line. We could also operate under environmental setbacks. We know we have a good project.”
One thing anti-wind activists continue to ignore, Jongewaard said, is the state’s mandate for renewable energy.
“In just about every state, we’re in the process of a fundamental transition in how we produce electricity,” he said. “The old coal and nuclear plants use old technology and cost a lot to continue to operate. That’s in part why we’re in the process of shutting them down. That’s a fact, not opinion.”
There’s also the law.
“The latest state requirement is 15 percent renewable energy,” DTE’s Wagner said. “We’re working on that. More recently, by 2030 we are charged with having 20 percent renewable.
“It’s also preferred by our leadership that by 2040 we reduce our carbon footprint by 80 percent. We think as both solar and wind become more cost-effective, we’ll see more of both. We don’t think wind will become obsolete, nor do we think it’s a silver bullet. But they will both be an important part of our energy portfolio,” he said.
The human factor
Aside from economics, there is the human side. Wind turbines can be a nuisance.
“They are noisy,” said Christine Crumbaugh, a Gratiot County family farmer who, along with husband Clay, did not sign a lease agreement, but have a tower across the street from their house.
“It can be a relatively calm day, and the spinning makes it sound like a super windy day,” she said. “They get quite noisy when they turn to catch the wind.”
Crumbaugh also said there is some shadow flicker that lasts about a half-hour “right around dinner time” for about four weeks a year.
“There are some times of year when it is obnoxious,” she said, “Red blinking lights at night can be bothersome too, but with new technology, I understand that the lights only come on if aircraft are in the area. If that were the case, the lights would be a non-issue. From our perspective there are not a lot of favorable aspects, but it’s not anything we can’t deal with,” she said.
The Crumbaughs conducted lengthy and thoughtful investigation into the benefits and drawbacks of wind towers when the project was proposed, she said, and decided it wasn’t best for their property.
“We felt it would be too limiting for what we might want to do on our farm in the future,” she said. “Land use was our deciding factor. We thought we might want to grow more specialty crops and use aerial applicators, and we didn’t want to close ourselves in with wind towers all over our property. The money from the leases was attractive, but money is not always a cure-all. Today, in times where there are more struggles for agriculture than there were then (the towers have been in place since 2011), I can see they are a big drawing point for agriculture. We were on the edge. It was almost enough money, but we eventually decided that it wasn’t.”
Despite that choice, Crumbaugh said she has never been an adamant opponent to the wind project, but admits that it has split the community.
“Everyone has to make their own choices,” she said. “From our experience everybody adapts. We’re getting used to it.”
The revenue factor
In Isabella County’s Vernon Township, Supervisor Jeff Bean, a non-farmer, said his decision to support the project was not a personal issue.
“As I’ve said publicly before, the last thing I wanted to do is watch windmills from my back porch, but I decided as a township official that I could not deprive the community of the economic advantages,” he said. “The biggest benefit is to farmers, our number one industry, and I’m all about them. This whole fight is creating havoc that will keep farmers who want to benefit from benefiting. One farmer who has several leases could make $70,000 a year. That’s a pretty good shot in the arm.”
Besides concern for farmers, non-farming residents fail to see what township officials have learned after extensive investigation, Bean said.
“When we negotiated with Apex, the feeling of the group was to get other (non-farmers) a piece of the action,” he said. “My only reason was to do my duty for the people of the township and to bring more money to the township.”
The other sometimes overlooked aspect of the primary election ballot proposal is the cost of establishing a zoning board and creating regulations on the township level. While Martis said that costs nothing, Bean said the Vernon Township attorney estimates $50,000 to establish it, with a cost of $94,000 per year to operate it.
“The benefits of our own zoning board is nothing,” he said. “We currently pay 6.25 mills to the county for zoning, and we have a good relationship with the county planning commission. Why not use that 6.25 mills we provide to have them do our zoning? If our residents want it, then we’ll look at doing zoning. But to me, this (opposition) has been a put-up deal by the gas and coal lobbyists.”
While the truth of that opinion may continue to be disputed, the August election will ultimately decide what happens. But unless townships put a moratorium on new projects, Apex Clean Energy will move forward with leases, and will begin building wind towers under current county zoning restrictions.
“We exceed the current requirements, and there are things we can and cannot do,” Jongewaard said. “Because Michigan has no clear guidelines, we find different counties have different zoning requirements. Sometimes they’re based entirely on emotion, and sometimes they’re based on science and data.”
Which will prevail in Isabella County remains to be seen. But at this point, only the election will reveal if opinions have been moved from their previously entrenched positions, although Bean said a few people, especially those who support farmers and trust them, have taken care to investigate the issue and make reasonable decisions.
But when social media takes control, not even the old wind pumps can push water uphill.
“You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve been accused of,” said the unnamed township trustee. “It’s not necessarily the wind project that has split this community, it’s social media. If something like this project will wreck a friendship, there probably was never a friendship to begin with.”