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United States

Michigan waking to a big new industry -- Turbines not Buicks and Fords

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Michigan, with its northerly location and bordered by three of the Great Lakes, is the 14th windiest US state with 16,560 MW of wind power potential. And, with nearly ten million people, it is the eighth most populous. Yet installed wind power capacity is a measly 2.4 MW in three lonely utility scale turbines. But now, with two significant projects lined up for next year and some semblance of a renewable energy standard (RES) likely to work its way through the state legislature, Michigan appears ready to joins its neighbours in the region and take its place on the wind power map.

"It's been way longer than we ever thought it would be," says Rich VanderVeen of Mackinaw Power, a home-state developer. "We put up two turbines in Mackinaw City in 2001 and we thought, here we go. But the whole country has moved forward and we haven't." Next year Mackinaw Power is joining with Illinois-based Invenergy to construct a 140 MW project with GE Energy turbines in Oceana County. It will link to a nearby 130 kilovolt substation and a signed power purchase agreement is in hand. "The turbines are lined up through Invenergy," says VanderVeen. "For sure it's a 2008 project."

The state's other upcoming development, Noble Thumb Windpark, recently received permission from Huron County to add nine turbines to bring its capacity to 61.5 MW, also from GE machines. Completion is scheduled for spring or summer 2008, says Anna Giovinetto of Noble Environmental Power, a New York developer that will own and operate the project. "A bunch of the turbines are sitting on the ground at the site because we expected to get started much sooner," says Giovinetto. "But now things are in motion."

John Sarver of the Michigan Energy Office says several factors, including inadequate transmission infrastructure, have kept the state from developing its wind resources. But he believes a RES will be key. "The developers have always told us that they have to have somebody to purchase the power," Sarver says. "We're going to have an electric capacity shortage down the road. I wouldn't consider it a crisis. But I think there's a realisation that there's a problem we need to address. There are quite a few variables involved, of course, and that makes it hard to make predictions."

Ten per cent mandate

On the current legislative table is a modest proposal for 10% of the state's energy to come from renewables by 2015. The plan, however, maintains that a first phase for reaching 3% by 2009 can be met with existing production. That means Consumer's Energy, with 1.8 million Michigan customers, has already met that goal. The company's renewable energy mix is at 5%, primarily through hydro and wood-waste facilities.

"We're hearing from a lot of legislators that something will happen on the RES front this spring," says Kim Pargoff of Environment Michigan, a non-profit advocacy group. I think the utilities would still like to see it be voluntary. But what we're really hoping is that 20% by 2020 will be introduced. We think people are starting to get behind it. There's a lot of business as usual in Michigan, but there's been a little more acceptance lately."

Purchase agreements

Meanwhile, Consumer's Energy has inked power purchase agreements with both of the state's upcoming projects. "We've had quite a bit of success with voluntary programs," says the company's Dan Bishop. "We're proud of our record but we recognise that there's a growing public interest in renewable power. And I think wind's time, if it hasn't come, is certainly coming. The illusive tipping point appears to be close."

In addition to addressing environmental concerns and energy needs, advocates insist that building a wind energy industry in Michigan would also help to energize a badly needed economic renaissance. Michigan's unemployment has hovered around 7% for four years and many of the state's automobile manufacturing plants sit vacant. They could conceivably be churning out turbines instead of Buicks and Fords.

"It's time to act, especially with the prospect of manufacturing," says Pargoff. "It would be a shame if we passed it up. We're pretty optimistic that something is going to happen, we just hope it's the stronger numbers. It's time for us to get on the bandwagon."

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