In choosing energy, every source comes with detractors

By ERIC FREEDMAN

Capital News Service

LANSING — Hundreds of wind turbines line the high ridges along both sides of Interstate 80 in western Iowa, the state that leads the nation in corn-based ethanol production.

Iowa is also the state that gets the highest proportion of its electricity – about 25 percent – from wind, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Michigan has about 675 operating wind turbines overall, with the largest wind turbine array in Gratiot County north of Lansing. Construction of Consumers Energy’s 62-turbine Cross Winds Energy Park in Tuscola County began last fall and is scheduled for completion this year.

As of now, only 1 percent of the state’s electricity is wind-generated, according to federal figures. Michigan ranked 11th in the country in ethanol production in 2013.

News reports show that wind and other forms of alternative energy have critics, not only in Michigan but elsewhere in the Great Lakes region.

For example:

  • An appeals court refused to order a southwestern New York town to extend an expired permit for a 29-turbine project that had been delayed by a community group’s opposition.
  • A Canadian court has revived – at least temporarily – a wind farm project near Lake Ontario that was stalled by a challenge from environmental groups concerned about its potential impact on a threatened turtle species, fragile soil and public health.
  • The Wisconsin Court of Appeals recently ruled that Green Bay officials arbitrarily and wrongfully revoked a permit for a trash-to-energy plant proposed by a local Native American tribe.

In these green-versus-green controversies, local opponents stymied projects by raising environmental concerns. Yet all three projects were intended to supply alternatives to the region’s current reliance on coal, natural gas and nuclear power for most of its electricity needs.

In the Ontario case, a group challenging the project, Prince Edward County Field Naturalists, explained, “We support renewable energy. But we also believe that wind turbines should never be built where they’re likely to cause significant harm to migrating birds, bats, butterflies and endangered species.”

Even alternative energy projects that are up and running can continue to generate controversy. As a speaker at the recent Fate of the Earth Symposium at Michigan State University observed, bats — the oldest living mammals in Michigan other than humans — are extremely slow to reproduce and vulnerable to wind turbines.

“Bats are not like mice. They don’t breed like rabbits, more like elephants,” said Chris Hoving, a climate adaptation specialist at the Department of Natural Resources. DNR is working with the wind industry to reduce bat mortality.

In the Ludington area, Consumers Energy and the Mason County Planning Commission have discussed more testing of sound at the Lake Winds Energy Park. The utility operates a 56-turbine project there.

A 2010 report by the state’s Great Lakes Wind Council identified five Upper Peninsula and Lower Peninsula “wind resource areas” deemed most suitable for offshore turbines: southern Lake Michigan near Berrien County; northern Lake Michigan near Delta County; central Lake Superior near Alger County; central Lake Huron out from Saginaw Bay; and southern Lake Huron out from Saginaw Bay.

However, last year, GOP Reps. Ray Franz of Onekama, Greg MacMaster of Kewadin, Tim Kelly of Saginaw Township, Pat Somerville of New Boston and Bob Genetski of Saugatuck, introduced legislation that would prohibit offshore wind turbines. All but Kelly represent shoreline districts.

Their bill is pending in the House Energy and Technology Committee.

No alternative energy source is without its environmental costs. But as demand for power continues and as existing fossil-fuel and nuclear plants age, Michigan and other Great Lakes states need to more aggressively explore alternatives.

The environmental concerns of local citizens and their grassroots groups raise serious questions. And to pursue their cause, they are using legitimate avenues of protest – petitioning government for a redress of grievances, as the First Amendment puts it. Each side can also turn to courts to resolve disputes, and they’ve demonstrated the willingness and enough money to do so.

There also is disagreement within the less-or-no-carbon fuel movement.

For example, at the Fate of the Earth Symposium, “National Geographic” executive editor for environment Dennis Dimick included nuclear power on his menu of possible steps to combat climate change. Dimick wasn’t endorsing – or disendorsing – the nuclear option, merely suggesting it for consideration as the only large-scale 24/7 non-carbon energy source now available.

Some presenters at the symposium took an absolutely-no-nuclear stance. One was Anne Woiwode, Michigan director of the Sierra Club, whose organization is conducting a nationwide campaign to shut down all coal-fired plants in the United States.

The 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan has made policymakers, utility companies, investors and government regulators even more wary about approving and financing such projects.

And no Michigan community is volunteering to host a future nuclear plant, an idea that certainly would trigger a supercharged NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) movement.

Meanwhile, expect local public opposition to more wind, solar, biofuel and waste-to-energy projects that could delay or prevent their completion. That’s not necessarily bad, as long as everyone takes into consideration the larger picture.

This commentary is adapted from a longer column on Domemagazine.com.

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