Michigan May Curtail Wind Lawsuits

Published February 19, 2015

Scrambling to meet a self-imposed 2015 renewable-energy deadline, lawmakers in Michigan may be caught between competing interests of proponents and opponents of wind farms.

While clashes over wind farms have spread across the country – from Minnesota to Missouri, Alabama, Maryland, and Massachusetts — Michigan added a new twist, introducing bills to limit lawsuits by citizens opposing the construction of giant turbines in their midst.

In late 2014, State Sen. Howard Walker (R-Traverse City), offered legislation protecting utilities and developers of wind farms from what he refers to as “nuisance” lawsuits.

Protecting Companies from Citizens

Walker’s bills would have exempted utilities and developers from lawsuits as long as they complied with state and local ordinances. Though Walker left the Senate at the end of 2014 and his bills died, remaining supporters of the bills in the Senate Committee on Energy and Technology may introduce similar bills in 2015.

Wind projects have cropped up in 11 Michigan counties, most located near Lakes Michigan and Huron. But with the prospect of more wind facilities increasing, opponents are filing lawsuits fighting the projects at higher rates than ever.

In Mason County, on the shore of Lake Michigan, local residents filed a lawsuit claiming Consumers Energy’s Lake Wind Energy Park has caused headaches, sleeplessness, nausea, dizziness, stress, and fatigue since the facility began operating two years ago.

Controversy over Mandate

The controversy over wind projects in Michigan is rooted in the state’s 2008 renewable portfolio mandate requiring the state’s electricity providers to generate 10 percent of their retail sales from renewable sources by the end of 2015. This looming deadline, and the prospect of even more lawsuits by opponents of wind projects, prompted Walker’s legislation.

“Any action that deprives citizens of due process is deplorable,” said John Droz, a North Carolina-based energy researcher. “This matter could be immediately fixed if Michigan’s legislature, instead of stripping citizens of their civil rights, would pass appropriate industrial wind legislation.

“With proper protections embedded in state law for citizens, businesses, and the environment, there would be an immediate drop in lawsuits,” Droz said. “Better yet, Michigan legislators could follow the example of their West Virginia counterparts, who cancelled their state’s [renewable portfolio mandate].”

The mere threat of litigation can scuttle wind projects. Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy, for example, abandoned plans to construct two wind farms costing $200 million in Cherokee and Etowah counties in northeastern Alabama when No Wind Alabama, a local alliance of wind farm opponents threatened to sue, citing concerns about wildlife, noise, and declining property values.

Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D. ([email protected]) is a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research in Washington, DC.