Building Wind Turbines & Power Line Fight

  • A display of a renewable energy project in front of a photo of a Tiara Yacht hanging on the wall at the company's facility in Holland. (Photo by Lindsey Smith/Michigan Radio)

When President Obama talked to the nation this week, he pointed out a guy from Michigan in the audience.

“When Bryan Ritterby was laid off from his job making furniture, he said he worried at 55, no one would give him a second chance. But he found work at Energetx a wind turbine manufacturer in Michigan. Before the recession the factory only made luxury yachts. Today it’s hiring workers like Bryan who said I’m proud to be working in the industry of the future.”

Last spring, Energetx Composites expected to increase its workforce from 40 employees to 300 sometime in 2012. We wanted to check in to see how things are going.

Chris Idema works in business development for the Holland-based company.

“You know, I can’t really comment on a specific number but we are definitely in growth mode right now, we are hiring and we expect to do so over the next several months.”

He says the biggest obstacle to his company’s growth is uncertainty in the market. Idema points to a federal tax credit that he says gives the wind industry some stability. That credit expires at the end of this year. It’s not clear what Congress will do about it.

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This is the Environment Report.

There’s a fight brewing about whether Michigan’s Upper Peninsula needs two new power lines. The high voltage lines would cut through northern woodlands to bring electricity from Wisconsin to the U.P. Energy companies say the single existing line is maxed out. But, as Bob Allen reports, citizen groups say the power companies are jumping the gun:

An announcement by WE Energies of Milwaukee sparked this debate last fall. The company said it would phase out an old coal burning power plant in Marquette over the next five years. To keep the plant going would mean investing millions in new pollution controls.

People in the U.P. were worried about where their power would come from, and they were upset about the prospect of losing 170 jobs at the Presque Isle power plant.

WE Energies favors building new power lines to send electricity from Wisconsin to the U.P. That plan was put on a fast track for regulatory approval.

But then a couple of weeks ago, WE Energies and Wolverine Power based in northern lower Michigan announced a joint venture.

They’re now looking at upgrading the plant in Marquette to meet stricter pollution rules.

Brian Manthey of WE Energies says the decision hasn’t been made yet whether to keep the coal plant going. But he says that doesn’t really affect the plan for new transmission lines.

“With or without the future of the Presque Isle power plant being considered transmission is desperately needed in that area. And there does need to be transmission upgrades.”

But citizen groups say: not so fast.

New power lines would cut a swath for more than a hundred miles through northern forests, and they’d be expensive.

Howard Lerner with the Environmental Law and Policy Center says that decision ought to be carefully weighed, not rushed.

And he says at this point new transmission lines are overkill.

“If WE Energies and Wolverine Power Cooperative do the right thing and retrofit the plant up at Presque Isle in Marquette with modern pollution control equipment then don’t also at the same time try to force consumers to pay for a billion dollars of new transmission lines.”

WE Energies retrofitted a similar coal plant in Wisconsin at a cost of $900 million.

A decision by the Board that oversees transmission lines is expected in June.

Then the plan would need approval from utility regulators in Wisconsin and Michigan.

For the Environment Report, I’m Bob Allen.