TC Companies Land Major Windpower Project

TRAVERSE CITY ­- Two local businesses and a host of others in Michigan are planning a $75 million wind energy farm in the Upper Peninsula to reap the wild winds of Lake Michigan's northern shore.

Heritage Sustainable Energy, based in Traverse City, is developing the project on the Garden Peninsula, east of Escanaba, with an agreement to sell the electricity to Consumers Energy. Heritage will contract Windemuller Electric Inc., also of TC, to wire the towers and connect them to Consumers' grid.

Other companies around the state are building components and will transport blades and other parts, making this project Heritage's nearest yet to a made-entirely-in-Michigan development.

"We're getting close, though there are still components from other parts of North America," says Rick Wilson, vice president of operations for Heritage.

He says the company tries to hire in-state contractors first, which is increasingly possible as new alternative-energy specialists crop up. Previously, turbines have tended to be imported from other countries, notably Germany.

The in-state companies that have signed on:

– Betz Foundry of Grand Rapids, which cast the rotor hub and other components.

– Barton Malow's Southfield office, to handle the general contracting and use its cranes to erect the turbines.

– Great Lakes Heavy Haul of Byron Center, which transports large parts like blades.

– Northern Power Systems, which will manufacture the turbines in Saginaw, though the company is based in Vermont.

The project, which is considered Phase 1, calls for 13 or 14 windmills among the farm fields between Lake Michigan and Big Bay de Noc. The development will cover roughly seven square miles.

Together, the windmills will generate 29 megawatts, which is enough to power up to 10,000 households.

Whether or not there is another phase will depend upon Consumers requesting more electricity, Wilson says.

The area is ideal because of the winds that blow across the peninsula, and because it consists of relatively flat, clear farm land.

"Companies have meteorological towers around the state, so we know that's an excellent wind resource there," says Rick Johnson, renewable energy manager for Windemuller. It's also a good location for uploading to the Consumers grid.

Windemuller's Traverse City office will provide about 12 workers to wire the Garden Peninsula towers, while more than 50 Heritage employees will be in on the construction.

A unique aspect of the windmills going up on the Garden Peninsula is that they'll have direct-drive wind turbines, which does away with the need for many of the gears employed by windmills today. Windemuller's Rick Johnson assisted Northern Power to design them. The new design will likely extend the life of the mechanism, says Daryl Holwerda, Windemuller's business development manager.

"The industry is abuzz about this," Holwerda says.

So too is the Garden Peninsula – most of it positive, says Tim Callahan, building and zoning administrator for Delta County, where the wind farm will be located. He says few residents have voiced concerns, though those that have have raised questions about noise, danger to birds and constant flickering shadows.

All told, it looks likely that the project won't have any hurdles. Heritage is currently awaiting permits from Delta County, and it doesn't require a vote by the board because the townships do not have zoning restrictions. Nevertheless, Callahan says the county is looking at instituting rules to govern future windmills.

"We've garnished strong community support over the three or four years we've been going about this," Wilson says. Much of that has involved obtaining leases from landowners.

Project designers research the impact on wildlife and air traffic in conjunction with state and federal agencies. They also calculate the reach of the shadows to keep them from falling on anyone's home, Wilson says.

Wilson says that's how the company has handled all of its projects, including the Stoney Corners wind farm, which Windemuller was also a part of, in Missaukee County. Wilson declined to speculate on why other projects, like recent proposals in the Ludington area, have aroused more controversy. He would say only that state and federal incentives have helped advance these and other alternative energy developments. BN