By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
ST. JOSEPH — With 25 coal power plants scheduled to shut down in Michigan by 2020, an energy company is looking to invest in Southwest Michigan.
It’s been more than two months since it has become public that Apex Clean Energy was interested in leasing land from farmers in southern Berrien County in the hopes of building the area’s first wind turbine farm.
On Thursday, representatives from the Virginia-based company sat down with The Herald-Palladium’s Editorial Board to discuss the specifics of the energy project they are calling Galien Oaks Wind.
Apex development manager David Guillory said the company is looking at Baroda, Buchanan, Galien, Three Oaks and Weesaw townships as possible locations for the turbines. Efforts to get in touch with residents began in January and evolved into door-to-door visits.
“The biggest obstacle is making sure people want to do it,” Guillory said. “That’s why we start talking to land owners. There’s no way to put these up if there’s no land to lease it from.”
Apex public affairs manager Dan Blondeau said they are focusing on states throughout the Midwest, including Indiana, Illinois and Ohio. Apex has more than 60 projects total with five in operation.
Blondeau said the energy company is interested in these five municipalities because of their recorded high wind speeds, their feasibility of getting the electricity to the grid and the easy access to I-94.
Blondeau said they want to build 40 to 50 wind turbines, each of which would be 500 or 600 feet tall and cost $3 million.
“The thing to keep in mind is this project is in its infancy,” Blondeau said. “We haven’t chosen a specific turbine yet and no land has been picked out. We have several years of tests, studies and wind analysis to do before we get going.”
The company would take a few years to develop a site plan, test the winds, install meteorological towers and study the wind turbines’ effect on birds and bats.
Blondeau said Apex would like to lease 15,000 to 20,000 acres among the five municipalities.
Not all of the leased land would be used. Guillory said they want to lease as much land as possible to give Apex more options to place the turbines and to use some of the land for underground collection lines.
The collection lines send energy to substations. The lines would run 3.5 feet underground, below plow depth.
Guillory said if there is a 160-acre parcel being leased, a turbine would take up about 1.25 acres – which includes the concrete base of the turbine and the access road to get to the turbine.
“Most of the properties that we do end up leasing are not going to have turbines on them,” Guillory said. “Farmers can continue to farm the land like they have been. They’ll still get profits from their farming and an income from the turbine’s lease.”
While no landowners have yet signed a lease, Guillory said he believes they are close to a few joining the project.
Apex faces a hurdle with Weesaw Township, which has an ordinance preventing any commercial wind generating facilities. Guillory said he and a few others visited the township’s board to answer questions in July.
“We spoke to their board awhile back and they did say if the townsfolk are in favor, they would not rule out addressing the ordinance,” Guillory said. “As it stands now, we can’t be in Weesaw. But if we do get a lot of interest from landowners, we would present the leases to the Township Board.”
For each lease, Guillory said Apex pays everyone the same rate on a per-acre basis. Each lease would last 35 years, while the average lifespan of a wind turbine is 25 years.
Once the lease ends, Apex can either work out a new lease with the property owner and retrofit the turbines or decommission them. Guillory said Apex will likely break even on its investment on year 10.
The biggest negative that comes with the turbines is how big they are, Guillory said.
“The one argument we don’t have is if someone doesn’t like how they look,” he said. “You can’t change someone’s mind.”
To address this concern, Guillory said Apex added a new wrinkle to its leases.
If Apex is able to lease land to property owners in any of the five townships, Guillory said they plan to pay neighboring property owners that still have to look at the turbines.
“Residents within the project area should get something,” Guillory said. “They’ll be in on part of the payday. It’s not a ton, but it’s something. We would literally want to sign everybody in our footprint.”