The Politics Of Wind Power

Winton Dahlstom was surprised to receive a cell phone call while researching wind farm prospects in northern Ontario, Canada, where "there's nothing here except farmland and plenty of wind."

Wind is the renewable resource that fuels Dahlstom's passion and business interests in Ontario and Michigan, where he operates wind energy businesses under the aegis of Helix Synergy, LLC. Dahlstom helped draft Ontario's 2009 Green Energy Act , which established a "feed-in tariff," (FIT), effectively jump-starting the wind and solar energy sector in the province. In subsequent years, wind turbines and solar panels have popped up on farms throughout the province, becoming the envy of environmentalists on the other side of the border.

A FIT ensures a set rate of payment for energy produced through renewable energy technology such as wind and solar power. This enables small operators, such as farmers, to get loans to enable them to afford the cost of wind turbines and solar panels.

Kathleen Law, former Michigan state representative from Gibraltar and a colleague of Dahlstom's, introduced similar legislation here, which was met with "a wall of silence" and failed to gain support from either political party. She believes the law would have created similar economic development, not only from alternative energy, but also manufacturing to create components for wind and solar technology.

Why is it that alternative energy has progressed in Ontario while it languishes in Michigan?

Michigan is not a progressive state, asserts Law. "We're very provincial."

To be fair, Ontario's Liberal Party doesn't have a firm hold on government. The upcoming election is a toss up, and many believe that the Conservative party will win. A change in government won't revoke the law, Dahlstom says, but it will reduce its impact considerably.

He developed his passion for alternative energy through the writings of Hermann Scheer, the late German proponent of solar energy. In 2009, Dahlstom made the trip to a German beer hall where something significant was about to happen. Mercedes, BMWs, and other expensive cars arrived, delivering entrepreneurial farmers -- CEOs of small wind farms. They came together to create a community-based renewable energy utility. Dahlstom took this model back to North America, advocating for it first in Ontario, and now Michigan.

He's currently drafting a "treatise" to present to White River Township to gain public approval for wind farming, where there's currently a 50-50 split in public opinion. He's calling it a "community corporation," but it's not necessarily limited to a geographic definition. It could be a "community of interest," such as a pension fund, or wind farms in multiple geographic areas.

In any event, it won't be socialist in nature, he contends. "This is a corporation. It is taxable. It is for-profit. It is non-charitable. ... I'm pitching it as a mainstream Republican thing. Community corporate models are good old fashioned Lincoln Republicanism: local communities using local capitalistic models."

While Dahlstom pitches West Michigan, Law, a Democrat and career chemist and microbiologist, is working her network in Southeast Michigan, building a "citizen initiative" to bypass the legislative process because "Michigan doesn't do public policy. We do social policy. We care about abortion. We care about who's carrying a gun and who's not. In terms of doing energy policy and and planning for the future, we don't do that."

Law, who served three terms as state representative, points to term limits as a major contributing factor to the short-term thinking in Lansing. "Term limits is only part of the reason why we have such volatility in our governance, and why we don't have good public policy in Michigan. To do real public policy would require cooperation and a depth of knowledge. Even senior lobbyists have left. Senior bureaucrats have been forced out through early retirement. There's no knowledge left in this state."

Citing the impact of citizen initiatives in the case of stem cell research and medical marijuana, Law says that advocates need to mobilize public support, even write the legislation, outside of the established legislative process.

"The legislator is not capable of writing good public policy," she says. "They're not going to ask the right questions, they're not going to be schooled, they're not going to be interested enough to follow through with it. ... "I've been working (on a citizen's initiative for FIT) since 2007 with attorneys from 26 states and two countries, trying to get this into malleable language that is useful on a ballot, yet ties their (legislators) hands, because if they put their fingers in it, you open the hole for coal."

In the absence of government intervention, capital investment is unlikely to take a risk on small renewable energy enterprises, Law says. Also, she believes that renewable energy shouldn't be the domain of big energy interests, but that homeowners, community institutions, and small businesses should play a role in the industry as well.

"We need to have a policy which will provide a return on investment so we can attract capital investors and make homeowners feel secure in their investment."

She also argues that there needs to be a "net metering" system that allows energy producers to sell excess energy to large utilities, thereby increasing the cost-effectiveness of their renewable investment. Law says the renewable energy standard needs to be long-term -- 20 to 25 years -- in order to provide stable performance.

Law and Dahlstom are concerned about what Dahlstom calls American "corporate feudalism," preventing the growth of alternative energy enterprises in local communities.

"The American-led capitalistic model for free enterprise died long ago. State governments, particularly Michigan, are simply agents of monopolization. There will only be two wind power developers in the state of Michigan: Consumer's Energy and Detroit Edison."

Catching good wind in the south of Ontario

Ontario has good wind and sun in its southernmost point, Essex County, where wind turbines and solar panels can be found on several farms. Joe Gorski, a lifelong farmer who cultivates 3,000 acres in Harrow, south of Windsor near Lake Erie, and looks for innovative ways to farm, seized the opportunity to lease space for 12 wind turbines on his property to Harrow Wind Farm.

"Until the incentive program came out, we didn't see any opportunity. We didn't give any thought to it at all," says Gorski. "We happen to have the right topography and the closeness to the lake, almost an induction effect. As the water warms up during the daytime, the land warms up even more; at nighttime it cools down faster, but the water remains warmer. It creates a pulsing effect. Since we have just the right amount of slope, it causes the wind turbine to turn. It's always windy in our area."

Gorski and a neighboring farmer collaborate in one wind energy project producing 20 megawatts of power. The project is regulated by a nuclear power plant in Bruce county, in northern Ontario, which produces most of the energy in Ontario.

Self interest aside, Gorski believes that the renewable energy incentives should be extended to anyone interested. "If the government is going to incentivize just a handful of people, to me it doesn't make sense. And that's what they've done. But if they incentivize a lot more smaller people -- for example, if you put solar shingles on your roof, why couldn't you offset some of those costs?... I believe it would be much wiser to put it out to the masses and let everybody share in it."

Harrow Wind Farm is now owned by an international group. "It doesn't matter who the ownership is," Gorski contends, "as long as people have some of the wealth that comes from it."

The political culture in Michigan, including recent energy policy announcements from Gov. Snyder, shows little indication that the climate for renewable energy will improve in the state.

Law and Dahlstom say they will continue their advocacy despite the pessimism. As Dahlstom, notes, "I persist in looking for one bright star in this black universe in Michigan." The star, he says, is the enlightened self interest of the Montague farmers who support wind energy development on their land. "They are genuinely in favor of wind because they need the money."

Gorski also has a farmer's pragmatism. "When the sun doesn't shine and the wind doesn't blow, we can still use the hydro (power)," coming from the Bruce County nuclear plant. "We can still turn our air conditioner on, we can still turn the lights on."

Dennis Archambault is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to Metromode, Model D and Concentrate.

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