BY BRIAN McGILLIVARY
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Traverse City Light & Power’s iconic wind turbine, a towering structure that for 17 years spun its blades and accented the M-72 skyline, is set to be a thing of the past.
Board members for the city-owned utility this week agreed to dismantle the windmill in Elmwood Township after staffers waged a long but unsuccessful struggle to return the turbine to peak efficiency. The turbine needs an additional $10,500 in parts and staff estimates it would cost up to $10,000 to hire experts to determine what causes one part to continually fail.
“Staff has indicated it’s obsolete and it seems to be kind of endless in the repairs that are needed,” said Pat McGuire, utility board chairman. “I think we should close it down. It’s served its purpose and nobody makes parts for it anymore.”
The turbine stands 160 feet high and is less than half as tall as today’s modern turbines that are designed to catch Michigan’s best winds. Its generator is considered inefficient by today’s standards, but at its inception was the largest operating wind turbine in the United States. It’s capable of producing enough electricity to power about 110 homes for a year.
Utility officials said they may attempt to sell the turbine, or will have it dismantled if a buyer can’t be found. No date was set for its removal.
Jim Carruthers, city commissioner and utility board member, said he reluctantly supported the motion to tear it down.
“It was the first of its kind, the largest of its kind for a municipality, and the first to use a green rate (customer surcharge) to help pay for it,” Carruthers said. “But it boils down to dollars and cents.”
Hans Voss, executive director of the Michigan Land Use Institute, an agency that promotes renewable energy and conservation, said he doesn’t object to dismantling the turbine. But utility officials must continue their commitment and promotion of renewable energy and develop a plan to tap other renewable sources.
“If they do all those things, this will be a moment in a long journey, but not a step backwards,” Voss said.
Steven Smiley, of Smiley Energy Services, helped install the turbine and opposes its deconstruction. He said the costs of repairs would make it the cheapest power Traverse City could ever find but he said utility staff don’t want to go that route.
“It’s been kind of an ongoing battle there ... because people from Light & Power have been lukewarm toward the windmill,” Smiley said. “It’s been neglected.”
The board considered Smiley’s statements, but he didn’t support his financial claims with facts, McGuire said.
Tim Arends, the utility’s executive director, said breakdowns that kept the turbine operating at half-capacity, plus repair costs, caused the utility to lose money over the last four years. Repairs are complicated because parts come from Europe and there are few qualified repair technicians.
“It’s only (17) years old, but it is the dinosaur of wind turbines,” Arends said.
The turbine broke down in August 2012, and repeated repair efforts failed. Utility officials finally found a company to repair it and announced in June it was running full bore and should be good for another six years.
The same part failed again less than two weeks later. The repair company fixed it for $800. Utility staff installed the part on Sept. 6, but discovered one of two key motors that turn the turbine had failed. They replaced it with a motor that ran too fast and burned out the other motor. They purchased two motors, but those were the wrong voltage. In the process of hauling the motors up and down from the tower, the hoist broke.
And the repaired part failed again.
“They just make stupid errors,” Smiley alleged of utility officials. “They have a great service staff for running the utility and keeping the lines up, but nobody who really cares or knows about this windmill.”
The board also rejected Smiley's request to reconsider his recommendation to retrofit the turbine with new generators at a cost of about $250,000.
“The board feels it is better to pursue new renewable opportunities rather than pursue something that is outdated,” Arends said.