Kitchen table coffee fuels 260 Michigan wind energy jobs

Wind energy developments are becoming an increasingly common sight in rural America. But what makes a recent project in Central Michigan so unique is the number of cups of coffee entrepreneur Rich Vander Veen shared with local residents at their own kitchen tables in order to make the project a reality.

The new wind farm in Gratiot County, Mich., went online in April 2012. Its 133 white turbines generate clean, renewable electricity for about 55,000 homes. Beyond providing Michigan residents with environmentally friendly power, the project also pioneered a development model that actively seeks close, long-term relationships with the entire community.

Such a model fundamentally alters the economics of wind energy, Vander Veen said.

“We’ve reversed the economics,” he said. “The economics normally say a few people get all the money and the rest of us have to look at the turbines, and we can think of 10 reasons why we don’t like them, because we’re not part of the project. But if from the outset everyone is invited, that changes the dynamics and requires us to sit at all those kitchen tables.”

Vander Veen joked that for every one of the 212 megawatts the Gratiot County wind turbines generate, he consumed 50 cups of coffee. And for a project that has sleek General Electric blades rotating hundreds of feet up in the sky, talking at ground level with local families gave Vander Veen, a 58-year-old Michigan native, valuable insight into the community’s deep roots.

One of project’s successes has been stitching renewable energy into the fabric of rural life. In Gratiot County, home to family farms that date back five or six generations, the establishment of what amounts to a modern-day wind energy co-op is a throwback to the community’s long history of agricultural co-ops – the local sugar beet co-op and the soybean co-op, for example.

Now more than 250 families who partnered with Vander Veen and his company, Wind Resource LLC, have a tall new cash crop. Wind used to just rustle corn; now it generates clean power and provides residents with a drought-resistant income stream. In an area where the average per-capita annual income is $22,000, the royalty payments have in some cases been enough to keep families on their farms.

“The opposite of ‘Not In My Back Yard’ is ownership, right?” Vander Veen said.

For others, the project meant jobs. More than 260 workers built the project, which was completed on time and under budget. The main contractor was based in Livonia, Mich., and helped pour 46,000 tons of locally produced concrete.

Looking toward the future, Vander Veen, who has recently been working on projects elsewhere in Michigan and also in Montana, envisions technological advances that will help wind energy become as competitively priced as natural gas. While Vander Veen supports the Production Tax Credit and other state and federal subsidies that helped propel the Gratiot County project to success, he said relying on government support in a challenging political environment is not necessarily the answer.

“I think you need to think through the lowest price of energy out there and go beat it, rather than try to subsidize it,” Vader Veen said.

Specifically, Vander Veen said this could be achieved by advancements in turbine blades design. By 2013, he hopes a business partnership that includes a handful of small Michigan companies can produce a blade that is 5- to 10-percent more efficient.

Combined with the innovative model of community inclusion that worked so well in Gratiot County, a better wind turbine blade would mean only one thing for Vander Veen – more cups of coffee.

— Environmental Entrepreneurs