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DTE Energy adds Pine River wind to power portfolio

Michigan utility DTE Energy recently added a new wind farm to its power generation portfolio, and the 161-MW Pine River wind project is now the largest wind project in the state-until DTE finishes the 168-MW Polaris project early next year, that is.

By Diane Mettler

People often use the phrase, "Go Big or Go Home". Well, that seems like the motto this year for DTE Energy. In March, Detroit-based DTE Energy began operating Pine River Wind Farm, generating enough renewable energy from its 65 turbines to power more than 54,000 homes.

Michigan county sees the benefits of working with wind

Michigan's Gratiot County is home to three wind farms built since 2012, and the county has experienced many benefits:

  • The county's tax base saw a $379 million increase with $42.8 million in tax revenue since 2012.
  • 300 temporary skilled construction jobs were created.
  • Wind investment was used to leverage a grant to complete infrastructure for the Breckenridge Industrial, Technology and Agribusiness Park, where there are currently 100+ new FTE positions.
  • 350 families participate in land royalty payments that equate to a new industrial payroll with approximately 25 jobs.
  • Road upgrades, grid improvements and new electrical substations make the area attractive to new businesses.
  • There has been positive media attention and tourism.
  • The county has developed the reputation for collaborative action, proving the ability to accomplish large and complex projects.

The 161-MW wind project will offset nearly 300,000 metric tons of CO2 annually—the greenhouse gas equivalent of taking more than 63,000 cars off the road for a year.

Located in Gratiot and Isabella counties, Pine River is the largest wind farm in Michigan—as well as the largest for DTE.

"Pine River brings the number of wind parks in DTE's generation portfolio to 14," says Cynthia Hecht, senior communications strategist for DTE. "It is also DTE's most cost-effective and cost-efficient wind project to date."

With roots going back more than 100 years, DTE Energy is no newcomer to the energy industry. Today, this diversified energy company is involved in the development and management of energy-related businesses and services nationwide. Its operating units include an electric company serving 2.2 million customers in southeastern Michigan, where Pine River is located, and a natural gas company serving 1.3 million customers in Michigan.

Matt Wagner, the manager of Renewable Energy Development for DTE, explains that the Pine River Wind Park was initiated by third-party developer Invenergy. Invenergy started by engaging the community, signing agreements with landowners and working with local leaders to get community approvals. This is a process DTE is familiar with through similar projects that were self-developed.

"We acquired this project from Invenergy back in 2016 after reviewing many project proposals," explains Wagner. "We contracted with them to finish the development and then to build the project for us. It's not unusual for us to acquire wind farms like this. In addition to build-transfer projects like Pine River, we have self-developed a number of wind projects over the decade we've been involved in wind energy."


Like most other wind parks in Michigan, Pine River is located in an agricultural area, in this case in mid-Michigan's Gratiot and Isabella Counties. Agricultural areas lend themselves well to wind projects because they feature a strong wind resource and the topography is relatively flat and clear of trees. When DTE came on board, Invenergy was already well on their way—signing wind development agreements with hundreds of landowners, and deep into project design.

"With this particular project, we [DTE and Invenergy] were engaged early on," says Joe Gerweck, renewables platform manager in the Major Enterprise Projects group, the construction arm of DTE. "And we were able to work side by side with Invenergy through the whole design process."

Gerweck's team, which is responsible for all the design, construction, and commissioning of DTE's wind and solar parks, says prior to construction, Invenergy and DTE also worked closely with the community to prevent as much disruption as possible.

"There are a lot of logistics that go into these projects," says Gerweck, "to the point where our contractors make construction haul routes all can agree upon to ensure we're in alignment with all the local construction projects going on. We even take into account school bus schedules to ensure there is as little interruption as possible to the area's day-to-day traffic.

"What some people don't realize is that these pieces—tower sections and blades—are large," adds Gerweck. "Twenty-five percent of the effort in building a wind farm is just getting the components there."

Each route required thought and planning, analyzing turning radiuses and widening roads. Even a simple turn at an intersection can be a potential problem on a small country road unless things are worked out ahead of time.

"For this project we had nine trucks per turbine just for the components and 48 concrete trucks per foundation," says Gerweck. "So, there's a lot of logistics involved in bringing 65 turbines to the site."

A typical construction period in Michigan begins as soon as the frost has lifted in the spring, and it lasts throughout the summer. Construction for the Pine River project began in March 2018.

On the 161-MW Pine River project, DTE used 59 GE 2.5-megawatt GE turbines, and six 2.3-megawatt GE turbines. All of the towers were conveniently manufactured by Ventower Industries in Monroe, Michigan, not far from the site. 

"It was a wet spring," says Gerweck. "Weather is always one of those variables we can't control. We tried to mitigate this as much as possible and worked hand-in-hand with the landowners to have minimal disruption to their farming operations while we were doing the construction."

"The voice of the landowner is a very a big deal to DTE," says Wagner. "We consider ourselves guests on their land. The relationship with each landowner and with the community leaders is really important to make sure that as you complete the project from a construction standpoint, you come out on the other side with a partnership that's positive. You're going to have that mutual relationship with those community leaders and landowners for decades."

Local labor is also a big deal to DTE. In fact, it is one of the factors DTE considers when selecting a project. The ability to use in-state labor and resources is a company priority for DTE. They look at whether it features substantial state investment and use of state labor on a local level. About 90 percent of workers for the Pine River project were based in Michigan. At the height of construction, the project supported 250 construction jobs.

"We worked as a true collaborative team," adds Gerweck. "Not only does our construction team work right with the developer and contractors, but we also have operations involved, since they will ultimately be responsible for running the park. We found that this delivers the best product in the quickest amount of time. This was the second time this construction team worked with Invenergy on a build and we are just starting another build project with them, so it's been important to have a real collaborative environment."

The results speak for themselves. DTE completed its largest, most efficient wind farm—the largest in Michigan as of this article—on time and with zero recordable injuries. "Zero injuries is our number one priority," adds Gerweck. "At DTE, we take safety very seriously." DTE has generally used GE turbines. "We've found them to be very effective and good performers. But we consider other turbine manufacturers as well," says Wagner.

At Pine River, DTE used 59 GE 2.5-megawatt turbines and six 2.3- megawatt GE turbines. All of the towers were conveniently manufactured by Ventower Industries in Monroe, Michigan, not far from the site. The blades came from Iowa and Mexico and were manufactured by TPI.

When it came time to connect to the grid, DTE considered itself fortunate—the high power transmission line was close to the site. On other wind projects, the utility has had to go miles to connect to the grid. 

When it came time to hook up to the grid, DTE considered itself fortunate. "The high power transmission line was close—within eye sight," says Gerwick. "Other projects, we have needed to go miles. It worked out well in this case." Commissioning went smoothly and DTE took over operation and maintenance.

DTE and Invenergy both worked hard to establish and maintain positive community engagement with key stakeholders, community leaders, and landowners, as this is an important aspect of building and running a successful project. What stood out as truly unique in this situation was the amazing county involvement.

"It's not always easy to get the community to approve the project at large. There are some people out there who don't care for wind energy and try to generate discord," says Wagner. He says it takes time to get the community to understand the benefits of tax revenues from the turbines and the lease agreements with landowners. Once they get it, they usually embrace the project with enthusiasm.

"We get excited about each of these projects because the benefits are widespread," Wagner says. "The community benefits at a lot of different levels—from the individual landowner to the community as a whole."

In this case though, Gratiot County and Isabella County didn't just "understand" the benefits, they were cooperative partners in the wind projects. "The communities led the way in terms of how to host these complex projects," says Wagner.

Since 2012, wind projects have been built in Gratiot County that have led to revenues of approximately $42 million over six years in terms of tax payments coming from owner/operators of the turbines. "The benefit is pretty significant to the community," says Wagner.

Even though Pine River is the largest wind farm to-date in Michigan, it will soon lose its standing. Approximately 25 miles from Pine River, DTE is already working on Polaris, a 168- MW wind farm targeted to be online by March 2020. And Polaris is also a build-transfer with Invenergy.

"We have just finished up with 90 percent design and are quickly moving forward," says Gerweck. "There are portions that are already complete, and we have construction going on as we speak."

As mentioned, Invenergy is the developer on the Polaris project. Aristeo Construction is doing the civil and erection work, and Henkels & McCoy is doing the collection system. Motor City Electric is doing the substation.

Invenergy was also the developer on Pine River, White Construction did the civil work and erection, and MJ Electric did the collection system and substation.

Once Polaris is commissioned, it will surpass Pine River by three turbines to become the largest wind farm for DTE and in Michigan, further building on DTE's commitment to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80 percent by 2040.

Says Gerry Anderson, executive chairman of DTE Energy: "Bringing Pine River online is helping us meet the commitment we've made to our customers while contributing to the health of Michigan's economy. It is our next step in continuing the fundamental transformation of the way we generate power in Michigan, while maintaining our focus on reliability and affordability."