Wind energy developments are an increasingly common sight across the U.S. But what makes a recent project in Central Michigan unique is the number of cups of coffee that entrepreneur Rich Vander Veen had to share with local residents in order to make it a reality.
The new wind farm in Gratiot County, Mich. went online last year. Its 133 white turbines generate clean, renewable power for about 55,000 homes. More than just providing Michigan residents with environmentally friendly electricity, the project also pioneered a development model that actively seeks close, long-term relationships with all members of the local community. Such a kitchen-table model fundamentally alters the economics of wind energy, Vander Veen said.
“We’ve reversed the economics,” he said. “The economics normally say a few people get all the money and the rest of us have to look at the turbines, and we can think of 10 reasons why we don’t like them, because we’re not part of the project. But if from the outset everyone is invited, that changes the dynamics and requires us to sit at all those kitchen tables.”
Vander Veen joked that for every one of the 212 megawatts generated by the Gratiot County wind turbines, he consumed 50 cups of coffee. For a project that has sleek General Electric blades rotating hundreds of feet up in the sky, talking at ground level with local families again and again gave Vander Veen, a 58-year-old Michigan native, valuable insight into the community’s deep roots.
One of the project’s notable successes has been stitching renewable energy into the fabric of rural life. In Gratiot County, home to family farms that date back five or six generations, the establishment of what amounts to a modern-day wind energy co-op is a throwback to the community’s long history of agricultural cooperatives in crops such as sugar beets and soybeans.
Now more than 250 families who partnered with Vander Veen and his company, Wind Resource LLC, have a tall new cash crop. Wind used to just rustle corn; now it generates clean power and provides a drought-resistant income stream. In an area where the average per-capita annual income is $22,000, the royalty payments have in some cases been enough to keep families on their farms.
“The opposite of ‘not in my backyard’ is ownership, right?” Vander Veen said.
For others, the project meant jobs. More than 260 workers (both union members and unorganized labor) built the project, which was completed on time and under budget. The main contractor was based in Livonia, Mich., and helped pour 46,000 tons of locally produced concrete.
Looking toward the future, Vander Veen, who is currently working on projects elsewhere in Michigan and also in Montana, envisions technological advances that will help wind energy become as competitively priced as natural gas. While Vander Veen supports the Producers Tax Credit and other state and federal subsidies that helped propel the Gratiot County project to success, he said relying on government support in a challenging political environment is not necessarily the answer.
“I think you need to think through the lowest price of energy out there and go beat it, rather than try to subsidize it,” Vader Veen said.
Specifically, Vander Veen said this could be achieved by advancements in the design of turbine blades. By 2013, he hopes a business partnership that includes a handful of small Michigan companies can produce a blade that is 5 to 10 percent more efficient.
Environmental Entrepreneurs is an affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a grantee of the Surdna Foundation.
The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.