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Photo of TC Light & Power Windmill Green Power
by Andrew L. McFarlane

In June of this year, Traverse City Light & Power (TCL&P), a municipal electric utility, brought Michigan's first utility scale wind turbine on-line. The turbine, manufactured by Vestas and purchased from their American subsidiary, was built in Lem, Denmark and is the largest wind turbine in North America. The project is considered "revenue neutral" and does not affect general utility rates. Purchase and construction was funded by a "green rate" program in which TCL&P customers pay a surcharge on top of their normal electric rates as well as a $50,000 grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission. For the average subscriber to this program, this has amounted to an additional $7.58 per month increase. As there is already a waiting list for the green rate program, it appears that the project enjoys consumer support.

Charles Fricke is the Executive Director of TCL&P and offered his assessment of the program. "It's not an economical activity, at least in the way that is currently understood. The cost to build one of these is $1,000 per kilowatt(kW), compared to 5 to 600 per kW for gas or coal. However, I think that you also have to look at the other costs involved. Both coal and gas generation have been heavily subsidized for many years. You don't see that in your electric bill, but it does show up in your taxes. Then too you can look at the other costs: waste in the form of dioxides and resource consumption. The fact is that there is no form of power generation that is unaffecting--the key is to minimize that impact. With wind or solar generation, there can also be an aesthetic cost. I happen to think that the turbine looks rather nice, but what is you had a hundred of them or several square miles of solar panels? Even living "off-the-grid", you are still incurring some of these costs."

The turbine itself, the Vestas V-44, is a marvel of technology. It stands atop 160 foot high columnar tower (so birds won't nest inside it) with a blade diameter of 144 feet. The three rotor blades sweep an area of 16,300 sq. ft., driving a 38 thousand pound generator and producing 600 kW at its peak output. The three rotor blades weigh almost 10 tons and will adjust in pitch to maximize power output as twin motors move the entire assembly to stay pointing into the wind. The turbine is Lindal Cedar Homes of Traverse City--Build your dream...fully automated and begins to produce power in winds of 10 mph to its peak speed of 32 mph, after which speed the blades feather to dampen the power output. The average yearly wind speed for the site (on M-72 just outside of Traverse City) is projected at 15 mph, so it should be in ample supply. The windmill may also be controlled via modem by technicians.

As we were talking, Chuck quickly calculated that it would take 82 such turbines to satisfy the region's capacity and 170 to cover the area's peak electrical consumption. This first turbine cost roughly $650,000. Though if future generators were to be sited at the same location, the costs would be lower, they would still carry a price tag of about $550,000 each. "Although there appears to be a lot of interest in this project, we're not soliciting subscribers for future wind generators. We'd like to get some operating time under our belt, make sure that our wind projections for the site are correct. The board has said that if there is enough consumer interest and support, we'll build more in the future."

Steven Smiley of Bay Energy Services of Northport, the company which assisted in the installation of the wind turbine, had some thoughts as well. "With this project, we finally have a clear demonstration of modern, reliable wind technology. The technology that is widely known about in Europe and other countries, and now people have a clear demonstration that wind energy can work, and that it can work in Michigan. For a long time the general word was that wind generation wouldn't work in Michigan. I think that the debate on that is over. Both current green rate customers and Lelanau Chiropractic Center -- 256-RUSSthose on the waiting have expressed to me the desire to see more of these in our area. Wind is just about the cheapest long term generation method we have available. My business is that of an energy economist, I show people what the numbers are and recommend solutions. In almost every case, that means energy efficieny and renewable resources whenever possible. Athough the installed capital cost of wind power is higher than coal, with no fuel costs wind power is cheaper per kW-hr. When you add in 2 or more cents per kW-hr for environmental costs, coal doesn't come close. We've shown that wind power in this area is possible."

Though they were not interviewed at the same time and place, Chuck seemed to concur with Steve's assessment: "You need electricity. That isn't going to change. I think that the real story with TCL&P is not the wind turbine, but rather our program of demand side management. Every kW you save is one you don't have to generate by any means -- coal, gas or wind. That is where the real long-term energy planning has to focus."

Standing in the field and looking up at the wind generator, my head was not full of calculations of cost or kilowatt hours. Rather, I was taken by the sheer size of the windmill and the steady sound of the turning blades. Though that sound would be drowned out by passing cars, it endured and filled the lulls between them. Regular, like the beating of some new kind of heart, pumping in accordance with the flow of the wind.

Bay Energy Services can be reached at:
Box 260, Omena, 49674 - 616-271-4850 -

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