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The Windmills of Mason County — Blight or Art?

Wind turbine at Lake Winds, Mason County Michigan, with red shed, house and truck. Photo by BF Newhall

A misty day in Mason County, Michigan, at the end of May, 2013. Photo by BF Newhall

By Barbara Falconer Newhall

I grabbed my camera and jumped into my cousin Jeanie’s car. We were going to chase some windmills.

Three-and-a-half years ago I burst into tears when I read online that a Scandinavian company was fixing to put 200 windmills in Lake Michigan — right in the lake, and fully visible from the sandy beaches of my Michigan childhood.

My heart broke at the thought. The lake would be damaged aesthetically, and probably ecologically. One hundred square miles of wind turbine towers, each one 45 stories tall, each one with its own concrete platform. And all of it visible from the shore. A blight on the landscape and a permanent, unremovable hazard for boaters and fishermen.

Wind turbine soars above the trees at Lake Winds Energy Park, Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

A Vesta wind turbine.

Money was raised by local folks to fight the windmills. Meetings were called. I held my breath from a 2,000-mile distance, hoping against hope that somehow the project would fall through.

It did.

Apparently, the Scandinavian contractors who aspired to fill the lake with windmills had miscalculated. According to another cousin, who lives in the area, the planners had overlooked the fact that Lake Michigan, unlike Scandinavia’s North and Baltic seas, is a fresh water body. It freezes in the winter, and when it thaws in the spring, it throws up huge ice floes capable of sheering the windmills off their concrete pedestals and casting them into the water.

If that happened, my cousin wanted to know, who was going to pay for the clean-up?

Today, there are no windmills in Lake Michigan. That project was scuttled.

But just inland from the proposed lake site, there now stand 56 wind turbines. They’re scattered across the farmlad of Mason county, not far from the Scottville farm where my father grew up and not far from the cottage where my family spent its summers when I was a kid.

It’s called the Lake Winds Energy Park, and it’s been up and running since last November.

When I heard about the new windmills, I resolved to take a look the next time I was in Michigan. Were they a noisy, ugly, menacing blight on the scenery?

Or . . . might they be an interesting sight — attractive even? Might they draw attention to the shape of the land and enhance it much the way Christo’s Running Fence once punctuated the rolling hills of Marin county back in the 1970s?

My chance to see the windmills up close came late in May. My son Peter was married in Minnesota on May 25. And my brothers and I flew on to Michigan a few days later to bury my Aunt Grace in the Scottville cemetery. I tacked some extra days on to my Michigan trip so I could spend time with Jeanie.

My cousin and I had had our share of girlish adventures – we’d breathed the piney air of the Michigan woods together and built sandcastles at the beach. We’d climbed Eagle Top. We’d chased toads and snakes and chipmunks.

A good half century had gone by since our childhood adventures, but I was pretty sure Jeanie would be up for another one – chasing windmills.

She was. We piled into her car and drove up Highway 31 to the Ludington Pumped Storage Power Plant run by Consumers Energy, then cut east to the farmland nearby.

And there they were: Gigantic 312-foot-tall structures, each with three curved and pointed blades with a combined diameter of 328 feet. They were sleek, modern, massive Windmills near red barns in the Lake Winds project, Mason County, Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall— otherworldly — against the misty summer sky. The local oak trees and farmhouses seemed inconsequential in comparison.

We stopped the car and took pictures, then rolled down the windows to listen to the blades as they spun in the wind coming off Lake Michigan. Sure enough, the turbines generated a soft, steady roar. Something like the sound of a generator or a car engine idling. Not too different from the constant hum of Lake Michigan’s surf a mile or two away.

The windmills were impressive. Grand even.

Not quite Christo. Not quite a work of art. They had been placed scattershot across the countryside according to practical rather than aesthetic considerations. They didn’t cohere or seem to comment on the landscape.

Not quite art. But definitely not blight.

I’d say that if the farmers whose land the turbines occupy are happy with their windmills, so am I.

Note: The farmers might be happy with the turbines — they’re paid for the use of their land. But some of their neighbors are not so happy with the flickering light and other disruptions.

A channel leads through a sandy beach into Lake Michigan. Photo by BF Newhall

The Lake Michigan view that wasn’t wrecked after all. Photo by BF Newhall

Here’s a photo from Up-North Michigan, who tells me that this is the Sainte Marie, a railroad ice breaker ferry that started operation in 1931 and transported cars during the winter months. I’ve never seen the Great Lakes during the frozen winter months. So I have yet to see this kind of ice.

 

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Comments

  1. From only seeing them in pictures, they look fine to me – pretty cool, actually. I like the idea that they can help prevent the need for pollution to create that energy via other means. I’d rather have those up all over the place throughout the country and have very little overall pollution compared to what we have now.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Yeah. I think I’m OK with those windmills. And I supposed Lake Michigan is an especially good source of wind.

  2. Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

    Here’s a comment from my cousin Bob, who grew up near the windmill site:
    “I’ve seen the windmills and I think they’re fine. They certainly are not ugly and I think they have a certain grace to their long slender blades.
    “They are a sign of the 21st century and they certainly do less to disfigure the landscape than the freeways and petroleum refineries we so gleefully built in the mid part of the 20th century.
    “By the end of this century or sooner we may develop technology such as fusion reactors or hydrogen cell technology that may make these windmills unnecessary, and the nice thing about them is that if and when that happens we can take them down and the landscape will just as it was before. You can’t say that about the freeways and refineries.”

  3. Diann Neil Engblade says:

    I live in Mason County. I hate them. Wind technology might be green, but I wish they were in a backyard other than my own. There are many people who feel the same as I do and many others who think they are just fine. Regardless, the windmills are here to stay.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Part of the problem, maybe, is that the turbines feel like an intrusion from the outside — someone else’s agenda imposed on the local population, rather than an idea generated by the needs and wishes of the people who live in the area.

  4. Dan Schrock says:

    Barbara:
    “…a Scandinavian company was FIXING to put 200 windmills in Lake Michigan..” Really? And “they” told me you were from San Francisco. Sounds more like West Virginia to me. (Just pulling your leg so don’t stiffen up girl). Actually a nice piece. It reminded me of the windmill farms east of I-35 on I-90 in Minnesota. Many happy farmers there also. But, does it really make a difference where the windmills are located? I doubt it. They are all utilitarian, but loathsome in appearance. Dan

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Actually, the windmills on the Altamont Pass here in the Bay Area look pretty dramatic. Lots and lots of them on the bare hills so they make quite a statement . . . Yeah, I know. “Fixin’ to do something” is not properly part of my vernacular as a person from Michigan and California. But an editor at the SF Chronicle whom I admired greatly used to use that expression all the time. She was from Texas. The words just popped out as I was writing this piece, and I decided to let them stay as a little tip of the hat to my pal Ginger.

  5. Great article, Barb! Maybe we don’t object to the land windmills too much because we are so relieved that they gave up on putting them in Lake Michigan. It has crossed my mind that maybe that was the intent all along, just to get windmills in Mason County without too much public protest.

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      I’ve wondered that too. Consumers Energy probably really wanted to get some turbines installed near its Pumped Storage Plant. The battle was probably lost years ago when the Pumped Storage Plant got the go ahead in the first place. But see Nathan’s comment. We really do have to get some clean energy going somehow. And the trade-off in the case of the Mason County windmills isn’t too bad. Of course, I don’t live there so it’s easy for me to say . . . .

  6. Nathan McDonnell says:

    I feel this is an issue of greater depth than the look of a tower or the sound of the blades.
    The real issue we are at odds with is — how do we get cleaner energy for our lives?

    When I look at the issues like, how many pollutants does Lake Michigan have in it from our coal
    basee society, how many rivers that feed it have been devastated from industrial activity, it
    would beg the question — is the sight so bad? 30% of the pollution in our air is from energy
    production, and 30% is from transportation, of things like coal or oil supply.

    The sight of windmills in my renewable eye means we are progressing toward a cleaner
    tomorrow. In order to spare both sides and protect the rights of all involved
    I think a proper energy plan should be discussed. If we as a country would address the energy
    issues, and set a course, we could find compromise, instead of the combative politics that are blocking any true progress. In the end we must clean up what we are doing; we are already facing the consequences.

    I get more inflamed about the mass deception than the progression of a cleaner future. If the pollution from traditionally produced energy was displayed on a tower with a twirling billboard on a hillside or in the middle of Lake Michigan then we may also see a fight against it as well. (Written on my phone, sorry for punctuation and caps)

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Thanks, Nathan. I couldn’t agree with you more, which is why I tried so hard to make peace with — find some beauty in? — the new wind turbines along Lake Michigan.

      I have to say, though, that putting the turbines right in the lake would have been taking one step forward environmentally and a couple dozen steps back. Air pollution and global warming have to be at the top of our priority list. But conserving the planet’s beautiful places has to be a key consideration in the process.

  7. Lee Roberts says:

    Thanks Barb, good update. I would prefer no 300′ windmills in Michigan. I know that they are dramatic but………..

    • Barbara Falconer Newhall says:

      Lee, I agree. I’d rather those windmills weren’t there. But I’m trying to be open to compromise, and not object too much. Wind turbines in the lake were another story. That was out of the question.

  8. Mary Kibbe says:

    I like your article about the windmills in Mason County.

Trackbacks

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