The winds off Saginaw Bay in Michigan’s Thumb may be refreshing, but they haven’t always been welcomed by area farmers. Just ask Kurt Ewald, who farms more than 5,000 acres in Tuscola County near Unionville. “The winds cause soil erosion, especially with young, emerging crops,” he says. “Winds have been known to blow hard enough to literally cut the crop off at its base.” The steady 10- to 15-mph winds don’t cause much damage, he explains, but the 25-mph winds that can gust up to 40 mph sure can. But it turns out those winds make the state’s Thumb region ripe for a new kind of yield—wind-generated power—and Ewald’s attitude about it is blowing in a new direction.
Ewald’s fields are typically filled by rows of sugar beets, corn, wheat and many types of beans, but more recently they are also home to 15 elegantly spinning machines that are part of the Cross Winds® Energy Park. Consumers Energy started development of the wind farm in 2013, which now provides enough electricity to power about 30,000 homes with 62 turbines that are spread across 51,000 acres. While harnessing the power of winds to generate electricity has been around since the late 1800s, recent technological improvements have established wind as the fastest growing power source in the United States.
Geography has everything to do with being able to take advantage of new wind turbine technology. In Michigan’s thumb area, land such as Ewald’s experiences steady winds that come off the water from the north before moving back to the water to the south, according to T. Arnold Boezaart, former executive director of the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon. Likewise, certain areas in Michigan are a few hundred feet higher than other parts of the state, creating a “wind belt” across the state’s middle, Boezaart says. “That happens to be in a significant agricultural belt in the state, where there is an absence of large cities or natural obstacles that interrupt the natural, steady wind patterns,” he says.
This capacity for generating wind power isn’t going to waste. Today, Michigan ranks 16th in the country for total energy generated from wind, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).
According to Susan Sloan, vice president of state policy for AWEA, Michigan is a hub for wind power manufacturing, with nearly 40 facilities making parts across the state. She adds that, in total, wind power has attracted $2.3 billion in capital investment to Michigan and has provided jobs for up to 3,000 local workers. “By continuing to invest and grow wind in the state,” Sloan says, “Michigan will continue to see these economic benefits for years to come.” Consumers Energy’s Cross Winds® Energy Park, for example, has benefited the local economy by providing around 150 construction jobs.
Cross Winds® also offers a new kind of revenue for landowners like Ewald, who had never thought he’d welcome windy days. “Ten years ago, harvesting the wind to generate another income stream was about the farthest thing from my mind,” he says. “It certainly feels great to be a contributor to a renewable energy source like wind.”