2014-07-03 / Local News

Wind turbine breathes new life

By Alan Campbell
of the Enterprise staff


MOBIE-MAT, which provides better mobility for wheelchairs and strollers across grass and sand, was installed between a recently completed portion of the Leelanau Trail and the Suttons Bay beach at the village’s Marina Park this week. Village manager Wally Delamater said half of the $35,000 mat was paid for through state and local grants that helped pay for the trail project and other recent transportation improvements in downtown Suttons Bay. The blue mat is 6.5 feet wide and 166 feet long, and extends to the Suttons Bay shoreline. MOBIE-MAT, which provides better mobility for wheelchairs and strollers across grass and sand, was installed between a recently completed portion of the Leelanau Trail and the Suttons Bay beach at the village’s Marina Park this week. Village manager Wally Delamater said half of the $35,000 mat was paid for through state and local grants that helped pay for the trail project and other recent transportation improvements in downtown Suttons Bay. The blue mat is 6.5 feet wide and 166 feet long, and extends to the Suttons Bay shoreline. Leelanau County’s legendary wind turbine, which was headed for the scrap yard, has been offered a second life.

A wind energy company based in Traverse City has offered to buy the wind turbine for a pittance after a deal is worked out for Traverse City Light and Power to buy back the electricity it generates.

The offer from Heritage Sustainable Energy comes about six months after the board of the city-owned utility voted to sell or dismantle the windmill, pointing to growing costs for maintenance and repairs needed to keep the nearly 18-year-old turbine spinning.

The 160-foot windmill was unique when erected, the nation’s first utility grade wind turbine. Many Light and Power customers voluntarily offered to pay a higher, “green rate” to generate money used to pay off its purchase.

The windmill has evolved into a conversation piece — it’s located at the top of Morgan Hill in the middle of a cornfield north of M-72 — and a symbol of the area’s penchant to avoid carbon producing energy sources. When working, it produced enough electricity to serve about 110 homes.

But the turbine’s efficiency pales compared to energy generated from modern-day wind farms using equipment twice as tall. And the utility’s maintenance staff estimates that more than $20,000 is needed in parts to get it running and to determine why one part continues to fail.

Tim Arends, executive director of Light and Power, said past utility board actions provide him with authority to accept the purchase offer from Heritage. However, the utility’s board of directors would have to approve a contract to buy back wind-generated electricity.

Arends sent out an email Tuesday asking board members if they would like the item placed on the agenda of an upcoming meeting.

According to the email, the net cost to dismantle and remove the windmill would come to $160,000 even after selling reusable parts and scrap metal for an estimated $40,000. Heritage offered to “buy” the windmill for $1,100.

“It makes no financial sense to tear it down just to say you tore it down,” Arends told the Enterprise.

In his email, Arends wrote, “While the book value of this asset is about $375,000 the offer may seem astounding, however, in analyzing the total cost of removal and remediation I believe this is the best option.”

Farmer Terry Lautner, who leases about one acre of property to Light and Power under the windmill, said he has been in contact with Heritage representatives who want to work out a new long-term lease.

“It’s got about six or seven years left on it,” Lautner said of the lease. “They don’t pay me very much. I got paid up front, a fee, and I asked them to pay me for what I’d lose in farming.”

His last check was for $360, Lautner said.

Rick Wilson, vice president of operations for Heritage, said the deal could work out for both parties.

“We want to operate it, and tie into their distribution grid system,” Wilson said. “That’s the only way it makes sense.”

Wilson said the turbine, however, represents more than an economic opportunity for Heritage.

“It was the largest turbine in the United States when it was installed in 1996,” Wilson said. “I think it’s become a landmark not just for its physical nature, but for what it represents ... it’s not going to be a moneymaker. Sure, we’re going to try to cover the cost, and keep the light on.”

The purchase proposal provides Heritage with up to 60 days to complete its due diligence, after which seven days was allowed to compete the transaction.

“Upon closing Heritage will assume full decommissioning liability of the wind turbine and the restoration of the turbine site,” the proposal states. That’s a plus for Light and Power, which estimated demolition costs at $200,000.

Heritage Sustainable Energy is the only locally owned, large-scale wind farm operator in Michigan, Wilson said.

According to its website, the company operates wind farms near McBain capable of generating up to 60 megawatts of power. A wind farm under construction in the Upper Peninsula will generate up to 28 megawatts. Heritage is assisting Detroit Edison with planning and permitting a wind generating facility in Huron County. The corporation was formed in 2004.

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