DELAWARE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Whether they are beautiful or a blight on the landscape is beside the point.
Michigan's wind farms are here, en masse. And travelers can't miss them.
With nearly 900 commercial wind turbines dotting Michigan, especially in the Thumb where the wind is strongest and most consistent, a scenic drive can turn into a jaw-dropping experience. The Thumb alone has 618 wind turbines already operating or scheduled to go into service by next year.
"I was driving down the road when the sun was coming up one morning, and the sun hit the turbines and it was beautiful," says Scott Carr of Elkton, whose tiny community has been transformed in the last five years by 32 wind turbines. "Some people don't like them, but they don't bother me."
Wind turbines began sprouting in the state in response to a 2008 Michigan law that requires at least 10% of the state's energy be provided by renewable energy sources, such as wind, by 2015. The first phase of a high-capacity, 140-mile electric transmission line called the Thumb Loop was just completed in the region. It is capable of carrying electricity linked from at least 2,800 wind turbines.
Many things have been said and written about wind turbines. All over the world, they have changed tourist landscapes, adding strong man-made vertical elements to nature's soft horizontal vistas. Some travelers see wind turbines as engineering marvels and symbols of energy independence. Some see them as evil industrial fans ruining treasured landscapes.
Some see beauty in a sunset that makes the towers shine, or charm in a scene of a small house dwarfed by a turning blade. Other see turbines as too big and harsh -- which they are, compared to a cow, a sugar beet or a farmhouse. Some are so tall that Michigan residents can even see turbines erected across the water in Canada.
At first, they dotted the landscape here or there. Then, they spread. Last summer, an operator in the Ludington and Scottville area did a lively business driving busloads of tourists out to see the turbines. That success has others asking: How does Michigan make the most of their breathtaking stature and the awe that they stir inside of us?
Towering over farms
Along Bay City-Forestville Road near the border of Huron and Sanilac counties, swaths of turbines churn away as dairy cows graze and sugar beets grow.
Get out. Notice their size -- as tall as 410 feet. Hear their hum. See their slow-moving blades, each half a football field long. Marvel at how many turbines you can see at once -- 20? 30? 40? Maybe more.
If someone could figure out how to create a tour that let people actually walk inside or stand next to a massive turbine, they would have a tourist bonanza, says Carr, who has six turbines near his house.
"If you could walk inside of one, that would help tourism. There are stairs inside, and you can walk right to the top," he says.
Carr doesn't know it, but there already is a tour in Michigan where you can get close.
In the Thumb, Huron, Tuscola and northern Sanilac counties together have 14 wind farms operating or under construction, almost all erected in the last two years, Michigan Public Service Commission figures show.
On the west side of Michigan, the Lake Winds Energy Park in Ludington went into operation in late 2012 near U.S.-31. Its 56 turbines are a prominent sight.
"You can't really miss them when you go through town," says Sarah Kronlein, administrative coordinator at the Ludington & Scottville Area Chamber of Commerce. "A lot of people are curious about how they are made and how they work."
So a tour was created. It starts at the chamber office, where visitors watch a 20-minute video about wind energy and turbine facts. Then participants take a one-hour bus tour of Lake Winds. Retired Ludington social studies teacher Gene Jorissen operates the tour on his 14-passenger bus.
The bus stops 1,000 feet from a turbine, and passengers get out. "People want to know, how noisy are they? So we sit and listen. We talk about various concerns people have about them," he says.
Then, the bus stops at his cousin's house. The cousin has one of the turbines on his property. The cousin lets Jorissen bring his tourists right up to the turbine and stand under its massive 476-foot height to get a feel of just how big it is.
"You can walk around it. But you can't climb it. You can touch it. But you can't go inside," Jorissen says.
This summer, buses were full and there often were waiting lists, says Jorissen, who is continuing tours through Saturday.
Tours "have become a big hit," adds Dan Bishop, Consumers Energy spokesman. "Eco-tourism, right here in Michigan."
Lake Winds is not beloved by all. Consumers is being sued by 17 residents who claim the turbines are damaging their health.
DTE Energy, the other big player in the wind turbine business in Michigan, gives wind farm tours to lawmakers and VIPs, "but nothing that is open to the public," says spokesman Scott Simon.
That's also true in Gratiot County. It has 167 turbines at two massive wind farms, including the tallest ones in the state, 498 feet. Drivers can spot them from U.S.-127 between Lansing and Mt. Pleasant.
"People call and ask, can you take me up in one?" says Don Schurr, president of Greater Gratiot Development. Sadly, he can't. He gives tours to school groups sometimes, but from a distance. Sometimes, he says, residents who live near turbines are randomly visited by wind-curious people ringing their doorbells.
"It's getting to the point," Schurr says, "where we may need a tour on a routine basis."
Wind Turbine Day
In the village of Elkton, population 808, the state's first commercial wind farm, Harvest, went up five years ago. What a novelty it was then -- 32 wind turbines, each 353 feet tall -- taller than than the Statue of Liberty.
Enthusiastic town supporters began holding Wind Turbine Day each summer. Wind Turbine Day offered driving tours, bicycle tours, booths about alternative energy and more.
At first, they got a lot of interest in the new, strange turbines. But the event lasted only three summers -- 2009, 2010 and 2011. This fall, Elkton's Autumnfest still offered wind turbine tours guided by local teenagers. Just 30 people attended.
These days, residents aren't quite as enthusiastic about the turbines they welcomed five years ago.
"Some people are annoyed and totally hate them and say the noise makes it so they can't sleep," says Carr, who helped plan Wind Turbine Day while it lasted. On the other hand, maybe Wind Turbine Day was just ahead of its time. As the number of turbines grow, tourists driving up Caseville or Elkton Road or almost any other road in the Thumb become wind turbine tourists just by passing the region's most visible crop. As even more turbines go up, "I can't say for sure but I think it might help tourism," Carr said.
But see for yourself. Drive into the Michigan countryside. Drive up close. Stop the car. Get out. Listen. Argue amongst yourselves -- are they beautiful, dreadful or something in between?
Wind turbines are our new tourist attraction. We may as well make peace with them.
Where to see Michigan's wind turbines Wind farms don't have entrances or exits: They spread over private farmland across thousands of acres. The best a traveler can do is to know the crossroads. Wind farms also do not have signs, although they do have pleasant names like Pheasant Hill or Big Turtle or Crosswinds, and many have websites.
The Michigan Traveler drove around the state and recommends these spots if you want to see them. Remember, turbines are so tall that those that seem close actually may be a few miles away.
- Bay City-Forestville Road. Huron/Sanilac County line. You'll see swaths of them from two miles inland of Lake Huron all the way to west of Minden City, where three wind farms: Minden, Michigan Wind 1 and Michigan Wind 2, converge with a total of 116 turbines.
- Caseville and Elkton Roads near Elkton. The site of the first commercial wind farm in Michigan, now dense with turbines between Elkton and Pigeon. Wind Farm Day is no more, but wind farm tours are offered during the village's annual Autumnfest on Labor Day weekend.
- Southeast of Bay City. Tuscola County has 75 wind turbines at the Tuscola Bay Wind farm, and is a hotbed of future activity with 121 more going up as Cross Winds and Tuscola Wind II are built. One good spot to see them is between M-138 and Darbee Road in Fairgrove Township.
CENTRAL AND WEST MICHIGAN
- Gratiot County: Driving on U.S.-127 between Lansing and Mt. Pleasant, you can't miss them. Get off at Ithaca and take Washington Road east. Cut north on Wisner Road to M-46 near Breckenridge. The county has 167 wind turbines at the Gratiot and Beebe wind farms, including some 498 feet tall from the ground to the tip of the blade at Beebe, the tallest in the state. When the blades turn, they create a circle with a diameter longer than a football field.
- Between Ludington and Pentwater. Near Hawley Road east of U.S.-31. Fifty-six wind turbines churn slowly at the Lake Winds wind farm, covering 36 square miles, each turbine standing 476 feet tall from the base to the tip of the blade.
- Garden Township: The Garden 1 wind farm near the shores of scenic Big Bay de Noc has 14 turbines that reach 414 feet high. It is easily seen from the air on flights between Detroit and Marquette.
- Paradise: The tiny Upper Peninsula tourist town on Lake Superior is directly across from Canada's third-largest wind enterprise, the Prince Wind Farm, near Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Stand on the scenic shores of Paradise, and your view includes 126 turbines on the Canadian side of Whitefish Bay.
- Grosse Pointe Shores and Farms: Depending on how clear it is, residents of the Pointes -- and boaters -- can easily see 27 410-foot high Vestas wind turbines along the far shore of Lake St. Clair in Lakeshore, Ontario. Particularly visible at night with their red lights, the Pointe aux Roches Wind Farm went up three years ago. It's just one of many wind farms multiplying on the Canadian side of the lake, including the East Lake St. Clair Wind Farm and the Erieau Wind Project. Some wind power enthusiasts in Canada want turbines placed miles out into the lakes -- so the view from the Pointes may get even closer.