Circle Power continues wind turbine plans
ADAMS TOWNSHIP — The company behind a proposed wind farm in Adams Township says it is continuing to pursue the project despite pushback from some local residents and a proposed zoning ordinance that could potentially prevent the project.
The project calls for 12 575-foot turbines to be built on land on Whealkate Bluff in Adams Township. After neighboring Stanton Township imposed a nine-month moratorium on permits for commercial solar and wind projects, Circle Power moved four of the turbines, which had been planned for Stanton Township, into Adams.
With the purchase of additional land, Circle Power will also be able to site turbines further away from homes to the north, Circle Power partner Chris Moore said in an interview.
Adams Township, which imposed a six-month moratorium, reestablished its planning commission and is weighing a zoning ordinance. Moore said Circle Power’s counsel had written a letter to the township outlining what it saw as deficiencies in the zoning process, though he did not go into specifics.
“We don’t think it’s being put in place properly… potentially nobody likes zoning, but zoning that’s not done correctly is bad for everybody, because you can’t rely on it,” he said.
Elise Matz, a member of the Circle Power Renewables staff, said the project complied with the existing requirements of the township’s police powers ordinance. That includes a 3,000-foot setback from the nearest non-participating property. It is also close to a mile from the nearest home in the township, she said. Circle Power said the noise would not exceed 40 decibels at the nearest property line.
“This project is really appropriately scaled to the Keweenaw, and is going to have a minimal impact on the folks of South Range and Adams Township,” Matz said.
Circle Power sent a mailer to Adams Township residents touting the benefits of its program.
Circle Power said it would provide $15.9 million in property taxes over a 30-year period. Adams Township Schools would see the largest amount at $6.8 million. As the state government sets the formula for operational funding, the money would be used to pay down debt, Circle Power said. Houghton County would receive $6.1 million, the Copper Country Intermediate School District $2 million and Adams Township $940,000. The state would get the rest — $1.7 million going to the Michigan Educational Tax.
In a release, the Guardians of the Keweenaw Ridge, a citizens’ group formed in opposition to the project, disputed the benefits, pointing to a Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory study showing wind project revenues had not improved graduation rates or other student outcomes in Texas.
Residents have been skeptical of property tax benefits, pointing to a Michigan Tax Tribunal ruling on a DTE Energy wind farm project last year that would result in lower required payments for alternative energy projects. However, Moore said Circle Power is willing to guarantee revenues to the township, Adams Township Schools, the Copper Country Intermediate School District and Houghton County through a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreement. The agreement would set up a payment schedule for the duration of the project.
“Rather than rely on taxes, or try and wiggle out of their tax commitments, Circle is going in the opposite direction and is willing to commit to the $15.9 million number against any decreases in future tax revenue if the laws were to change,” said Elise Matz, part of the Circle Power Renewables staff.
An estimated $4 million would also be spent locally during construction, Moore said.
However, many of the short-term jobs could go to out-of-state workers, the Guardians of the Keweenaw Ridge said. And the project will not be a large jobs driver long-term, the Guardians said, citing a presentation by Sarah Mills, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s Graham Sustainability Institute.
At 3.5 cents per kilowatt hour, the Scotia Wind project would have the lowest-cost renewable energy rate ever reported to the Michigan Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state, Moore said. The lower rate UPPCO would have to pay for electricity would then be factored into MPSC’s decision-making when setting rates, Matz said.
“If you have a really low cost per kilowatt hour, that’s what’s being passed along through the ratemaking process and on your bill,” she said. “It’s not just UPPCO saying that. Other folks will have an opportunity to get involved in the process and make sure that UPPCO’s done the math right, and that pass-through is going to happen.”
The Guardians also disagreed with the notion that electricity rates would drop. Tax credits for wind turbine construction could eat any potential savings. And with almost 70% of UPPCO’s cost occuring in operating and maintaining transmission infrastructure, the gains would be minimal, the Guardians said.
“As one example, DTE Energy now gets almost 10% of their energy from wind (including the Garden Peninsula),” the Guardians said. “However DTE Energy’s customer rates have not decreased.”
After a 9% increase was approved in 2019, DTE made a similar request in 2020; that was ultimately reduced to a 4.7% increase.
The project ran into another hurdle over the summer when the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) denied Circle Power’s wetlands permit application. EGLE based the decision largely on findings by U.S. Fish & Wildlife, which determined the project posed a risk to populations of bald eagle and northern long-eared bat, a federally threatened species.
Circle Power has continued discussions with U.S. Fish & Wildlife about the project, and plans to reapply for the permit with the revised location, Moore said. Biologists have performed more than 1,000 hours of surveys on the site.
“We’ve also reduced our wetlands impact with the new layout, which we think is good,” he said.
In a statement, Guardians secretary James Mihelcic doubted the change of the project boundaries would reduce the impact to wildlife. He cited the range of wildlife found on the property, which is enrolled in the commercial forest program: raptors, moose, wolves and grouse. He pointed to a National Audobon Society suit filed against another project in a similar wind corridor in California.
“Mitigation methods are proposed by wind developers to decrease impacts on local wildlife,” he said. “However, the location still remains a critical area of wildlife congregation.”
Moore said in Circle Power’s view, the site is the only viable one for wind projects on the Keweenaw Peninsula. The 60-megawatt wind farm would use up the excess capacity on that transmission system, he said.
“There really isn’t room to build any other projects on the Keweenaw Peninsula,” he said. “It is not the first of many, it’s the first of this is it.”
Moore also responded to concerns about disposal for the turbines after the project ends; Circle Power puts the lifespan of the project at 20 years or possibly longer. About 85% of the turbine can be recycled currently, Moore said. Made of fiberglass, the blades remain the biggest problem, Moore said.
“It’s something that we’re working on, but it’s also not something that in the grand scheme of things is a huge problem,” he said.
Circle Power’s mailer also included simulated renderings of what the turbines would look like from various vantage points within the township. Six turbines would be visible from the Atlantic Mine substation, while none would be seen from South Range Elementary School, Jeffers High School or the South Range ballfield. Circle Power sent photos from the sites, along with the location of the proposed turbines, to a third-party engineering firm, Saratoga Associates.
“They’re not going to be invisible,” Moore said. “We’re not hiding them or anything like that. But they are going to be back away in the background.”
Adams Township will hold a public hearing on the proposed zoning ordinance at its township hall at 6 p.m. Tuesday. A draft of the ordinance can be found at upadamstownship.com.