As an energy source, the windmill built by Traverse City Light & Power in 1996 on the hills west of town produced more light than heat. It was more symbolic than practical and never produced enough energy to pay for itself.
The wind turbine was as much an investment in the future than a viable source of electricity. By building it — and by being willing to pay for it — Traverse City residents were embracing the fledgling alternative energy movement and looking ahead to a time that included clean, renewable power without coal and nuclear power plants.
Now, just as the wind and solar industries are gaining traction in Michigan and nationally, the Light & Power windmill has become an aging dinosaur. It's limping along at about half its capacity; when it broke down in August it took four months to find a replacement part — at a cost of almost $38,000; and just two days after workers installed the new part on Jan. 4, it broke down again.
Workers got it going again, but it seems to be time, as L&P Chairman Pat McGuire put it, to "give up the ghost."
When it was built the turbine, which sits atop a 160-foot tower and has a blade diameter of 144 feet, was the largest operating wind turbine in the country. It cost $785,000 and was able to produce about 600,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, enough power for about 110 homes.
But even in its prime the turbine couldn't pay for itself; today, it's less than half as tall as modern turbines and its generator is considered inefficient.
Clearly, it is time to pull the plug. Tim Arends, Light & Power's interim executive director, said it would take two years to generate enough income to cover the cost of just the latest part replacement — if the turbine operated at full output with low maintenance, neither of which is likely to happen.
Even though Arends has assigned Light & Power staff to consider alternatives, such as retrofitting the existing structure with a high-efficiency generator, the utility must be prepared to retire the turbine and take it down.
Ratepayers who helped support the windmill in the past can't be expected to keep paying for short-term repairs at a site that never generated the kind of sustained winds the turbine needed to be practical in the first place. Rebuilding at the wrong site doesn't make any more sense now than it did in 1996.
Salvage what can be salvaged, but take the turbine down and look for new ways to invest in a clean energy future.