Giants on the Horizon: Inside the Lake Winds Energy Park

Posted at 10:00 PM, May 07, 2014
and last updated 2014-05-07 22:43:55-04

LUDINGTON, Mich. (May 7, 2014) — The debate over wind farms in West Michigan has been a divisive one at times over the past several years.  And in one community, that debate is far from over.  So in April, FOX 17 went behind the scenes at the Lake Winds Energy Park near Ludington to see how the wind farm has shaped the landscape as it approaches two years since the first turbines went up.

In 2008, the state of Michigan passed legislation that requires electric providers to generate ten percent of their power from renewable sources by 2015.  That includes landfill gas, as well as hydroelectric power like the Croton, Hardy, and Rogers Dams along the Muskegon River.  But for Consumers Energy, the newest piece of the puzzle is now a fixture of the skyline in southern Mason County.

Even from miles away, they’re impossible to miss.  56 wind turbines, each one more than 400 feet tall from the ground to blade tip.

FOX 17 followed Consumers Energy production supervisor Mike Beyer to turbine number 53 at the Lake Winds Energy Park, which spans about 20 square miles in Summit and Riverton townships.  Up close, the structures loom even larger.

Beyer says the sight took some getting used to.  “Being such a change on the landscape it was a little bit different for me,” he said.  “But the more I looked at them, the more graceful they became, I guess.”

That size is an asset for a wind farm, as wind speeds increase with height.  Beyer can monitor the output and status of each turbine from his laptop – but he says the units do most of the work on their own.

“The controller reads the anemometer that’s on top of the turbine and when it sees the wind speed or direction change, it turns the nacelle to face the wind,” Beyer said.  The nacelle is the housing behind the blade hub where all the power is generated.  A lift inside the tower can take technicians all the way up there when the turbine requires maintenance.  All it takes to start and stop the turbine is changing the angle of the blades in relation to the wind, a process we watched as Beyer phoned a remote control center to “pause” the turbine so we could safely walk underneath.

Each turbine can produce up to 1.8 megawatts of electricity.  How much power is that, exactly?  Well, a fairly typical compact fluorescent lightbulb consumption is 18 watts.  That means each wind turbine at maximum output could run up to one hundred thousand such bulbs.  Beyer says an average retail supercenter such as a Meijer store consumes about one megawatt.

The total amount for Lake Winds Energy Park adds up to about one hundred megawatts of capacity, although Consumers says it expects the park to run at about 30 percent of that on average due to wind conditions.  It’s enough to make a decent dent in the state’s energy demand.

“We’ve had some occasions where we’ve talked about this wind farm is providing all the power for the load that would be needed for Mason and Manistee counties at a given time,” Beyer said. “And that’s significant, I think.”

But what is also significant is the effect some neighbors say the turbines have on their way of life.  And that’s where Mary Reilly comes in.

According to Reilly, “I have found that the way that people experience the turbines is unique to that person or it’s unique to where they live.”  As Mason County Zoning and Building Administrator, Reilly has spent much of the last two years listening to residents’ concerns and making sure the wind farm meets the standards set by the county.

“The planning commission is kind of the place where it all comes together,” Reilly said. “You have complaints, you have people that like the turbines, you have Consumers Energy, you have the landowners, and all these different things.”

Among the complaints, things like ‘shadow flicker’ – home videos available on YouTube show the pulsing of light in a nearby home as the blades pass in front of the sun.  More than a dozen neighbors have said the shadows, glare, noise, and other effects of the wind farm are enough to make them sick, filing a lawsuit against Consumers Energy last year.  Lawyers handling the case declined to comment, saying only that the suit is scheduled for mediation in June.

The noise ordinances at Lake Winds Energy Park have also been a point of contention between Consumers Energy and the county.  An engineering firm will be studying sound levels at the wind farm again in the next few weeks.

When our crew visited turbine 53, the blades made only a soft hum that nearly faded into the background entirely.  But Reilly says that’s part of what makes dealing with wind farm issues so complex.

“One of the things that is interesting about turbines is they’re highly variable just like the weather,” said Reilly.  “So, sound changes, shadows change, we have glare flicker, just a number of things that are hard to observe unless you’re right there at the right time, because 15 minutes from now, it’s too late, it’s gone.”

For now, though, wind farms are here to stay – Consumers plans to open an even larger project near the state’s thumb area later this year that will put the company on track to meet the state’s renewable energy standard in 2015.

And for Mike Beyer, it’s an exciting time to ride the wind in West Michigan.

“Wind development keeps moving forward, there are bigger and bigger turbines just in what I’ve seen. I’m probably the wrong person to ask whether it’s the future, I don’t have that crystal ball, but in the near term, it’s a significant part of the future.”