Manager of Ohio wind energy company questions $1.4M turbine project in Ann Arbor
The managing director of an Ohio-based wind energy company says a potentially $1.4 million wind turbine project in Ann Arbor is a waste of taxpayer dollars.
"There's not enough wind in that area for commercial turbines, and it definitely isn't enough for anything smaller," he said.
Courtesy of Lake Effect Energy Corp.
Christopher Stahl, president of Michigan-based Lake Effect Energy Corp., said his company will be partnering with Wind Products Inc. to construct the turbines and make sure they work properly.
Stahl said he's confident the turbines proposed — a 50-kW turbine and an 11-kW turbine, both atop 120-foot monopoles — will produce good results.
"The last thing we want to do is be spending public dollars irresponsibly — it's not going to happen," he said. "We're a smaller company. I like what I do and I want to be doing it 20 years from now, and I can't do that if we're not spending public dollars responsibly."
The Ann Arbor City Council voted in January to accept and appropriate up to $951,500 in federal grant money from the U.S. Department of Energy for the renewable energy demonstration project.
Brian Steglitz, a senior utilities engineer for the city, said the purpose of the project is to demonstrate the viability of wind technology and use it as an educational tool for the community.
"People are sort of misunderstanding the purpose of it," he said, adding it meets the federal government's educational goals.
"I don't think that we are, as a city, indicating that we think Ann Arbor has this great wind resource and we want to tap into it," Steglitz told the City Council in January.
"What this is really about is educating the community about renewable sources of energy. And to have a wind turbine in the city, which is sort of a monument to renewable energy, sort of speaks a little bit to the community's goals and interests."
The grant requires a $484,390 local match, but city officials have found a way around making a cash contribution. It's the city's intent to partner with AAPS and the developer to provide the site and financing required for the match, so the city's contribution will be $18,590 in staff time.
Woods, whose company conducted a 13-month wind feasibility study on behalf of Washtenaw County between 2008 and 2009, said he's appalled to see the city pushing forward with the project.
"It's a waste of money from the Department of Energy to invest in that project because we already know the wind regime is below marginal," Woods said. "It's just not going to produce."
An executive summary of the wind study Woods' company completed can be found on the county's website. It shows data was collected from an 80-meter meteorological tower at Chrysler's Chelsea Proving Grounds west of Ann Arbor from 2008 to 2009.
The data showed an average wind speed of 11.5 mph at 78.6 meters high, which is the typical height for a commercial or utility-scale wind turbine. The report noted utility-scale wind power plants require minimum wind speeds of 13.4 mph to be financially viable.
"The consultant concluded that the wind resource would likely not support the development of a utility-scale wind farm," the report states.
The study found the average wind speed at 100 meters to be 13.4 mph and at 30 meters to be 7.9 mph, concluding that 100-meter installations might be "marginally financially viable."
Russell Tencer, chief executive officer for Wind Products Inc., said he finds it "a little bit odd" that Woods is using a four-year-old study of one location in Washtenaw County to argue there's no potential for wind energy in Ann Arbor. He said every location has a unique wind resource.
"There are certain locations where it makes sense, and plenty that don't," Tencer said. "Our experience is in figuring out the optimal locations to get the best return on investment."
Tencer said his company, which does wind modeling and financial modeling all over the world, performed an initial wind study in Ann Arbor and he's comfortable with moving ahead.
"The way this project is set up, we would own the machines, so it's critical for us that it make good financial sense," Tencer said. "Otherwise it's not a good use of our time."
Woods argues it only makes sense for Tencer's company because of the large public subsidy involved. He fears it's going to be a repeat of what happened in Lordstown, Ohio, where two wind turbines installed in 2011 have failed to meet expectations.
Woods' company recently purchased Minnesota-based Ventera Wind Inc., which is manufacturing 10-kW turbines at a plant in Duluth.
"I've seen far too many bad installations out there," he said. "We have to be smart about wind. If you offered me the project, I would turn it down."
Stahl said it's important to note what's proposed are "point-of-use turbines" directly connected to what they're powering. He said nobody's looking to set up a commercial wind farm in Ann Arbor.
Woods said he knows that and he still fears the project will be bad for the wind energy industry and the turbines will be little more than "lawn ornaments."
"Any time you have a turbine that is not performing, it's just bad for the industry as a whole, and that's what we'll end up with here," he said.
Steglitz said not much has happened on the project since the City Council voted to accept the federal grant in January.
The federal grant expires June 30, 2014. Steglitz said the construction would have to be completed by then.
Steglitz said the exact location still hasn't been determined, but the plan remains to install two wind turbines as renewable energy demonstrations on school property.
"In terms of it being viable, it will spin and it will make power," he said.
It's expected the developer will construct the turbines and provide the public schools with a 20-year power purchase agreement that would help AAPS save on electricity costs.
Steglitz said the turbines would provide a hands-on tool for AAPS to teach students about wind energy, and there would be an online tool where data from the turbines would be available.
Steglitz said he's confident there's sufficient wind to operate turbines in Ann Arbor, but he said the project is still in its infancy and the design details haven't been worked out.
Woods argued the two turbines the city is talking about installing should cost significantly less than $1.4 million.
Project officials explained the $1.4 million is covering more than just the cost of the turbines — it's also paying for a public outreach process and educational efforts. Stahl said it's also possible it could help fund a documentary on the project, which has been talked about.
Steglitz said once the contractual arrangements between the parties are finalized, an environmental assessment process will begin, and that will include public engagement.
AnnArbor.com has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the city asking for wind study data submitted by Wind Products Inc., the project budget the city submitted to the U.S. Department of Energy, and any correspondence between the city and AAPS regarding turbine locations.
Ryan J. Stanton covers government and politics for AnnArbor.com. Reach him at email@example.com or 734-623-2529. You also can follow him on Twitter or subscribe to AnnArbor.com's email newsletters.