Richard and Carole Murphy were driving through North Dakota several years ago when they noticed three enormous metal blades spinning slowly in the prairie wind.

“We were curious, so I turned around and drove back until we found a gravel road that led to the base of the turbine,” says Richard. “We stood right underneath it and looked up at the rotor and the clouds going by. There was no noise, except for the sound of the wind blowing by the tower. It was almost majestic.”

The Murphys were standing at the base of a 230-foot-tall wind turbine that generates electricity for a nearby air force base and customers of North Dakota’s Minnkota Power Cooperative. In recent years, rising fuel prices, government incentives, and improved turbine technology have helped wind farms spring up like mushrooms in Texas, California, Iowa, and the northern plains. About 1 percent of the country’s electricity is now generated from wind power.

“I would have wind power in a heartbeat,” says Carole Murphy. “The subsidies help the farmers, and it helps preserve our rural way of life.” Her husband agrees: “I wouldn’t object to owning a house next to a wind farm. I’d be pleased to know we’re producing some electricity locally.”

It’s fortunate the Murphys feel this way, because their rural Sylvan Township home is part of a five-square-mile area designated as a prime location for wind farm development in Washtenaw County. One day, this area along M-52 south of I-94 could contain up to fifty wind turbines generating electricity for Chrysler’s Chelsea Proving Grounds, the county buildings on Zeeb Road, or even the city of Ann Arbor.

Using wind power to produce electricity has many advantages. Wind is free and locally available. Unlike coal- or gas-fired power plants, wind farms don’t emit carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases, and they don’t use water. Often located on leased land in fields or pastures, they can generate supplemental income for farmers.

But wind power has one big disadvantage: it produces electricity only when the wind is blowing. The question is whether there’s enough wind around here to make it work.

Wes Prater was curious enough to try to find out. In 2006, when he was chair of the Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners, he took a field trip to Bowling Green, Ohio, to visit a small wind farm that had four turbines and was selling electricity to a local power cooperative.

“The return on investment was great,” says Prater, who is now a county road commissioner. “It was a nine-million-­dollar investment, and they were going to pay it off in thirteen years. If Bowling Green could do it, it seemed to me that Washtenaw County might be suited to produce wind power, too.”

In April 2006, armed with data from the Ohio wind farm, Prater persuaded the board of commissioners to pass a resolution appropriating $68,000 for a feasibility study to determine whether wind speeds in Washtenaw County were high enough to make wind farming profitable.

While onshore winds along Michigan’s coastlines are excellent, there was a lot of skepticism in 2006 about the potential for wind power inland. Wind maps created by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimating wind speeds at fifty meters (164 feet) above the ground rated most of Michigan’s interior as “poor to marginal” for wind power. But when NREL issued new maps estimating wind speeds higher above the ground, the prospects for local wind power brightened considerably.

“At fifty meters we don’t look so good,” says Josh Long, Washtenaw County’s energy coordinator. “But when you get up to seventy meters, we’re looking pretty dang good. And at one hundred meters, we’re really looking good.”

To harvest the stronger winds at higher elevations, manufacturers are making taller turbines with bigger blades, reports Daryl Stockburger, chief project consultant for North Coast Wind & Power, the Ohio firm working with Washtenaw County on the study. Also, he says, “almost every wind turbine manufacturer now makes turbine models designed for lower wind speeds”–to harvest energy efficiently from less-than-­optimal winds.

According to the American Wind Energy Association, a small wind tur­bine can generate about 10,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually—the amount used each year by the average American family. Several utility-grade wind turbines working together can produce enough electricity for thousands of homes and factories.

According to Stockburger, the county needs to find a place with an average annual wind speed of at least thirteen miles per hour to make wind farming practical. Wind maps estimate average wind speeds of more than seventeen miles an hour at 100 meters in most of southwestern Washtenaw county, but actual winds can vary considerably from location to location. “The only way to be sure is to monitor the winds and do a study,” he says.

The first step is to install a meteorological (“met”) tower with weather instruments to measure wind speed and direction over a period of twelve to eighteen months. North Coast hired an Ann Arbor consulting firm, RMT, Inc., to generate maps of the county, conduct ground surveys, and identify the most promising locations for a met tower and eventual wind farm.

Although elevation is important, picking a site is not as simple as finding the highest hill. In Washtenaw County winds most often come from the southwest, so the site has to be far away from buildings or tall trees that block wind from that direction. To feed the power grid, the site has to be close to transmission lines. And for construction access, it should be near a major highway.

Another factor is the threat wind turbines may pose to flying creatures. Public concerns about birds and bats flying into wind turbines led Congress to commission a National Research Council study. Released in May 2007, the study found no evidence that wind farms had a significant impact on the bird population in the United States. But the report said wind farms could pose a danger to threatened or endangered populations of birds or bats, or to birds of prey, like hawks and eagles. So towers shouldn’t be erected near significant bird or bat colonies or in migratory pathways.

After reviewing all the data, RMT recommended several locations for a met tower. Two were in a six-square-mile area in Sharon Township just north of Manchester. The third was in Sylvan Township just east of the proving grounds. An additional site in Lima Township, slightly south and east of the Sylvan Township site, was selected later.

The Federal Aviation Administration frowns on putting up a 300-foot-tall metal tower near an airport, however, and the Sharon Township sites were close to Rossettie Field, a private airport at M-52 and Pleasant Lake Road. That, and proximity to the River Raisin’s migratory bird corridor, knocked the Sharon Township sites out of the running.

After the consultant reported on the final sites in April 2007, Long and Tony VanDerworp, the county’s director of planning and environment, began what Long says was the most difficult part of the project—all the meetings it took to get the two townships to approve the zoning permits needed to put up the tower.

“It’s not that the townships were against it; it’s just that they’d never done it before, so it took a long time,” Long says. “There was no organized opposition, but a few people had concerns about it. Once people realized that these things aren’t bad, we’re not going to be killing a bunch of birds, and we’re not going to be putting turbines in without telling people, most were overwhelmingly supportive.”

Russell Reister, a Chelsea resident and retired director of plant operations for the University of Michigan, is not one of those people. He maintains that wind power is expensive, inefficient, and unreliable. He’s also opposed on aesthetic grounds. “I happen not to like how they look,” he says. “Some people love them and want to put them in their backyards. The ideal spot to put them is along the lake, but would you like to see a bunch of wind turbines on the Sleeping Bear Dunes?”

In spite of efforts to conserve electricity, Reister says, “the demand is growing between one percent to three percent each year. We need a lot more energy than we’re going to get from wind power. We have to find a way to solve the long-range problem.” In his view, that’s more nuclear power plants.

Even its most enthusiastic supporters agree that wind power can never be the sole source for electricity. Turbines shut off when the wind stops blowing, and there’s no economical way to store excess electricity for later use.

“When you utilize wind power in a mix of resources, you need to have other types of generation available,” says Stockburger. “As long as you don’t go over fifteen percent to twenty percent of the total power supply, they are pretty much proven to be viable as a supplemental resource.”

One of wind power’s major disadvantages is that electricity produced by a wind farm generally costs more than the same amount from a traditional coal- or gas-burning power plant. Stockburger says the cost of wind power varies from project to project—it depends on the site’s wind speed, the size of the farm, the efficiency of the turbines, and the interest rate on money borrowed to finance the project.

The consultants for the Washtenaw Wind Power project estimate that building a 100-megawatt wind farm here would cost $150 million to $160 million. If tests confirm an average annual wind speed of seventeen miles per hour, Stockburger says, the base cost of the electricity it produced could be as high as 9.3¢ per ­kilowatt-hour if the farm receives no local, state, or federal tax credits, or as low as 4.5¢, if all tax benefits kick in. That high estimate of 9.3¢ per kilowatt-hour is actually less than the average retail price state residents pay for electricity—but about double the wholesale rate utilities pay to power plants.

And wind power has one big financial advantage over coal- or gas-fired power plants: when you pay your electric bill, the money stays in the community. “Right now, ninety-five percent of the energy for our electricity comes from coal or natural gas,” says Long. “All the coal is imported from West Virginia or Wyoming. We’re exporting all that money. But if you put a wind farm in, especially with local investors and local customers, the money stays in the local economy, and it creates revenue that could help our farmers keep their land.”

Early in December 2007, Matt Arndt, a facilities engineer at the Chelsea Proving Grounds, got a new assignment from his boss, Jeffrey Zyburt: research the potential for wind power. Arndt says that when he read about the county’s project, “I contacted them and put out feelers to see if they’d be interested in putting it [the met tower] on our property. That’s how the ball got rolling.”

In February, Chrys­ler and the county completed an agreement. Not only will Chrysler allow the 262-foot-tall met tower to be installed in the infield of the proving ground’s 1,400-foot test track, the company also will reimburse the county for $30,000 of its $68,000 appropriation, which covered consultants’ fees for the study plus buying and installing the met tower. According to Long, the county will recoup more of its expenses when it sells the met tower back to North Coast Wind & Power at the end of the twelve-to-­eighteen-month wind speed study.

“It’s an excellent opportunity to put in a data collection center that will add to the data currently available about wind power’s potential in Michigan,” says Dave Lyons, energy planning manager for the Chrysler Corporation.

Would Chrysler be interested in building its own wind farm?

“We haven’t taken anything off the table,” Lyons says. “Obviously, we need to ensure there’s enough wind to make it feasible. Once we make that determination, we can explore all the options.”

The financial hurdles associated with a local wind farm remain formidable, though.

For now, budget issues have forced the county out of the wind power business. Although the original plan for the project called for three meteorological towers, “we don’t have funds to pay for anything else,” Long says. “That’s not to say we don’t want to, or won’t seek other partners to do it down the road.”

Though limited, Washtenaw County’s experiment in “priming the pump” for future wind farm development could give the county some important advantages in the eyes of potential investors. Data from the met tower will allow investors to determine whether a wind farm would be profitable here.

With all the presentations made by the county’s Long and VanDerworp to Lima and Sylvan Township planning commissions and boards, the initial groundwork for a future wind farm zoning permit is already done. Sylvan, Manchester, and Lodi townships have passed wind power ordinances, and Lima Township is working on one, according to Long. Local residents already know about the project and some local farmers are interested in the idea of leasing land, so investors won’t have to start from ground zero persuading people a wind farm is a good idea.

But despite all the local efforts, the fate of wind power here ultimately is outside the county’s control. So far, what’s made most wind farms work financially is the federal Production Tax Credit—a 2¢-per-kilowatt-hour tax credit for private wind farm owners. The PTC is due to expire at the end of 2008, however, and the U.S. Senate just voted down a proposed extension. Without the tax credit, “it will be difficult to do projects in marginal wind speed areas,” Stockburger says.

But even if the credit is renewed, more help is needed. In her 2008 State of the State address, governor Jennifer Granholm called for legislation requiring that at least 10 percent of Michigan’s electricity come from renewable energy sources by 2015, and 25 percent by 2025. Twenty-five other states already have such renewable energy portfolio standards.

Thanks to generous state support, wind power is working in Ohio. The Green Mountain Energy Wind Farm in Bowling Green made money, especially when the investors sold it to AMP-Ohio (American Municipal Power–Ohio), which is now expanding and adding more turbines to increase capacity.

There are at least two other large wind farms being developed in Ohio—the 100-megawatt Buckeye Wind Project and the 49.5-megawatt Wood County Wind Farm. These facilities just received $5 million from Ohio’s Wind Production and Manufacturing Incentive Program. Michigan has no such incentive program, however.

Moreover, there’s a long waiting list for wind turbines—manufacturers can’t keep up with demand. So even if the winds at the Chelsea Proving Grounds are strong enough, and the political winds blow favorably in Washington and Lansing, it could be many years before the Murphys and their Sylvan and Lima township neighbors start seeing turbines spinning in their own backyards

Originally published in the Spring 2008 Community Observer