Wind Energy Allegations Deserve Hearings

Claims about efficiency, health hazards should be explored

(Editor’s note: Jack Spencer is capitol affairs specialist for Michigan Capitol Confidential and a veteran Lansing-based reporter. His columns do not necessarily represent the views of Michigan Capitol Confidential or the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.)

State lawmakers ought to investigate two unanswered allegations against wind energy in Michigan. The first persistent allegation is that, when it comes to efficiency and the environment, wind energy is a fraud. The second persistent allegation is that it often constitutes a health hazard.

Michigan’s 2008-passed energy law, which created what amounts to a mandate that 10 percent of the state’s electricity be generated by in-state wind energy by 2015, is scheduled to be reviewed by the Legislature this year. That review will be a travesty and sham if it fails to include a serious effort to delve into these allegations.

Any such "serious effort” should feature hearings that center on the allegations, not hearings about broader issues to which the allegations are treated as tangential information. In fact, the two allegations deserve to be handled separately. The question of whether wind energy in Michigan is really efficient and good for the environment could be taken up by an energy committee in either the House or Senate. The allegation that wind turbines often constitute a health hazard might be well-suited for either a local government committee or a health policy committee. Deciding which committees should look into the allegations is a minor consideration, as long the legitimate debate over these allegations doesn’t get glossed over or buried.

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The allegation that wind energy is neither efficient nor particularly good for the environment is based on the fact that the wind only blows intermittently. The claim here is that, in Michigan, which the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission long ago excluded from its list of “good” wind energy states, wind energy is mostly fossil fuels — primarily natural gas — in disguise. According to wind energy critics, natural gas is needed to supplement the on-again off-again variability of wind to a degree that the wind portion of the equation is an impediment. In other words, simply turning on the natural gas generators and disconnecting from the wind turbines would be both more efficient and result in fewer emissions.

Hampered, it appears, by a belief in wind energy — or concerns about advertising dollars — most of the so-called mainstream news media refuses to listen to any discouraging words uttered about it, let alone report on the claims of wind energy critics.

The complaint here is not that the so-called mainstream news media won’t accept the allegation as factual, but that it is so closed minded that it doesn’t bother to find out what the allegation is. If it did so, suspicions that wind energy critics are just shilling for the fossil fuel industry would be dispelled, considering that the allegation is that wind energy is really just fossil fuels anyway. By not even acknowledging this part of the debate over wind energy, the national and statewide news media is, in a very real sense, censoring information from both itself and the public.

The allegation that wind energy in Michigan might constitute a health hazard is based on claims that inaudible, low frequency “noise” emitted by wind turbines, when erected in too close proximity to homes, makes from 10 to 15 percent of people sick. If proven, this could be a death knell for wind energy in Michigan because, due to population density, there is no practical way to build so-called wind plants (some call them wind farms) far enough away from places where people live.

Mason County took Consumers Energy to court over what is essentially the health issue concerning Lake Winds wind plant near Ludington. The county won at the circuit court level and that case is now before the Michigan Court of Appeals. The fact that most of the news media across this state has failed to cover that case is nothing short of amazing.

Something else the regular news media missed was a portion of the renewable energy study, that Gov. Rick Snyder ordered to be done, which found that the health impacts of wind turbines are real and that setback distances from homes should be increased. Meanwhile, virtually all “regular” news media articles on the study’s findings merely reflected what the wind industry wanted the public to think the study said.

Across Lake Michigan, Brown County in Wisconsin (where Green Bay is located) declared wind turbines to be health hazards. In Ohio, the state rid itself of the “in-state” aspect of its wind energy mandate and lengthened its wind turbine setback distance. The national and statewide news media has failed to report stories like these. Only certain radio stations, local TV stations and local newspapers have covered criticisms of wind energy, usually when reporting on local zoning board and county commission hearings.

As written in previous columns, it is likely that Michigan’s big utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE, will call the shots this year when it comes to any actual changes to Michigan’s energy laws. Anyone who thinks otherwise is probably being naïve.

Nonetheless, the Legislature —which unlike the news media is elected by the voters — should give the allegations about wind energy fair hearings. These hearings would almost surely be “he said, she said” in nature and wouldn’t settle the issues involved, but would at least show that lawmakers respect both sides of the issue and possibly alert the people of Michigan that the value of wind energy is debatable.


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