Windmill Update: Farming Wind in Benzie & Manistee

REGION – North Carolina-based Duke Energy still hopes to construct a large-scale commercial wind farm in Benzie and Manistee counties. But as it moves forward with its plans, it is refocusing its 2012 efforts on just two of the four townships identified in the original proposal – Joyfield Township in Benzie County and Pleasanton Township in Manistee.

The reason? More signed landowner leases, and more support for wind energy overall.

Ultimately Duke Energy, the nation's largest energy company, would like its Gail Windpower Project to also include Benzie's Blaine Township and Manistee's Arcadia Township. Company officials have described the 112-utility-scale wind project as a $360 million investment that would generate about $1.6 million annually in additional property taxes within each county.

But a Duke-commissioned survey of 900 residents in all four townships clearly showed where wind energy is more welcome – majority support in Joyfield and two-thirds majority support in Pleasanton. So, at least for the near term, Blaine and Arcadia townships are on the backburner.

Also, this month the Benzie County Board of Commissioners is expected to take action on a resolution calling for formal support of wind energy in general. As a non-binding resolution, though, it would largely be a symbolic gesture, according to Glenn Puit of the Michigan Land Use Institute, which has been following the project closely and posting regular reports on its site, mlui.org (search: Duke Energy).

The proposed Gail Windpower Project has also spurred some grassroots, citizen-led watchdog efforts. One such effort, the Arcadia Wind Study Group, was contacted by the TCBN for comment on its "Save Benzie" campaign, but didn't get a response. Its posted position on its website (arcadiawindstudygroup.org) states: "Although we support residential and community-scale wind energy where appropriate, we oppose any attempt to bring industrial wind power to our township and region."

What's the next critical step for Duke? Locking in a contract with a purchaser of its wind power. As of now, there is reportedly no deal in the works, says Puit.

The next step for the townships: zoning regulations for wind developments.

Since Benzie County eliminated its planning and zoning departments under budget constraints last winter, all such work falls to the individual townships. A recently completed "Understanding Wind Initiative" study – which surveyed landowners and answered some 400 questions from the public about wind energy – is assisting officials as they grapple with creating ordinances to deal with proposed wind energy developments.

Benzie's Joyfield Township, however, is the exception. It currently has no zoning regulations in place and a millage request to support a township planning and zoning department failed. And just last month voters recalled the township supervisor, clerk and treasurer – who all had signed leases with Duke Energy for wind turbines on their property, according to recall petition language. BN

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