Making an Impact: Researcher Sarah Mills gives Michigan communities the straight story on wind turbines

August 24, 2018

By Terry Kosdrosky, Public Engagement & Impact

A company wants to build wind turbines in your township and is offering landowners, many of them farmers, a sweet deal to lease property. Meanwhile, your board meeting is packed with strongly opposed residents who view wind turbines as a nuisance.

It’s a situation a growing number Michigan communities face as utilities look for cleaner energy sources. Both sides present contradictory facts in their favor. Search the internet and the story is the same: huge successes and horror stories, depending on the source.

Sarah Mills, a senior project manager and researcher at the Ford School’s Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, is helping community planners and elected officials sort through the noise and make decisions based on data and research. Mills has surveyed farmers and residents across the state and studied the local impact of wind turbines in different types of Michigan communities.

She’s traversed Michigan, making presentations for county and township boards with a big decision in front of them. She’s also written articles in trade publications for community planners and been interviewed on  radio shows.

But it’s in the face-to-face meetings at county and township halls where she’s had the most impact.

“The goal is to share the pros and cons of wind energy so communities can make their own decisions based on facts,” Mills says. “I’m not there to tell them what to do. But I really love that I get to do this because I grew up on a farm, I know what these communities are going through, and I feel I get to give back a little with the information I share.”

Her research on wind energy takes a different angle than most of the academic world, and has practical value for residents and elected officials.

“Most people approach wind energy from a global sustainability perspective and that’s important, but I want to understand more fully the impact on communities where they are located,” she said.


From Plows to Gears and Back Again

Mills originally studied mechanical engineering, but switched gears to focus on urban and regional planning—with an emphasis on farmland preservation—for her PhD at U-M. The subject was personal for her: she was raised in a farming community in southern Michigan and saw her hometown cede farmland to development.

A drive through Gratiot County piqued her curiosity. It seemed like nearly every farm housed one or two wind turbines. She found out that the developer was promoting wind turbines, and the lease payments they provide to farmers, as farmland preservation.

“That became my dissertation: finding out whether wind energy is a new tool in the farmland preservation toolbox,” she said.

Mills surveyed farmers in Michigan on the impact wind turbines had had on their finances. She found that wind turbines provide a drought- and pest-proof income stream for farmers, with the money reinvested in their farms. Farmers with wind income were also more likely to have a succession plan in place, which suggests generational stability.

A second survey, funded by the Mott Foundation, took a broader approach, surveying different types of people in rural communities, and considering the community-wide impact. That survey helped show why some communities opposed wind turbines while others embraced them.

“Wind turbines fit better in some communities than others, and it largely boils down to what their planning and development goals are,” said Mills. “Generally, if you want to preserve agriculture, maintain working farms, and keep young people in the community, wind energy fits well with that. If your goals or plans are to develop more tourism or residential property, wind energy isn’t as compatible. Wind turbines are not silent, they have lights, and they might deter people from buying a vacation home in the area.”


Reaching Out

Another theme was clear in the surveys: elected boards were inundated with one-sided arguments, frustrating their planning process.

So Mills sent letters to 300 townships she thought were likely targets for wind development. She developed handouts and PowerPoint presentations summarizing her research so anyone could digest it.

At first about 20 communities took up her offer, and she presented all over the state — the Upper Peninsula; the west side, near Grayling; and the east side. Even though the grant has run its course, communities keep calling, so she keeps racking up miles.

“A lot of these rural communities don’t have a huge planning and research staff,” she said. “And there aren’t a lot of information sources that don’t have a dog in this fight.”

One of those who reached out to Mills is Doug Nowicki, supervisor of Greenwood Township, Mich., a mostly agricultural community northwest of Port Huron.

Earlier this year the township updated its wind turbine ordinance, requiring developers to get all property owners within 2,000 feet of one to agree to it. The board felt smaller property owners near larger parcels didn’t have enough say in the process.

Mills became an indispensable source of information during their research, he said.

“From my standpoint, I found her very helpful,” said Nowicki. “Her information was more straightforward than what other people presented to us. We had other speakers that were either pro or against wind, but they were usually biased one way or another. That’s why we asked her here. I wanted the good, the bad, and the ugly on wind turbines and I wanted Michigan data.”

Getting involved in a highly charged issue does mean criticism will come your way, she says. Neither wind developers nor anti-wind turbine activists are ever fully satisfied with her findings because, as she says, “it’s not as cut-and-dried as either side would have you believe.” But that’s the point of bringing new information to light.

“Sometimes it’s an uncomfortable position to be in because it seems like you’re making everyone mad,” she said. “Then you see someone cherry-pick or take your research out of context. I’ve had to stop using Facebook because activists organize there and it can get ugly. But I live for the times when someone says, ‘Thank you. You really helped us think about this in a different way.’ You know you’ve done your job.”