Environment Picture

Rich Vander Veen: Guiding communities to clean-power prosperity

Corn and soybeans are the cash crops for brothers Kent and Olin Humm, seventh-generation farmers near the Gratiot County village of Breckenridge. But the payments they receive for the four wind turbines on their 3,000 acres sure don’t hurt.

“We’re not out working in the field today,” said Kent Humm in his workshop on a wet spring afternoon, “but we’re still making money.”

That’s music to the ears of clean-energy entrepreneur Rich Vander Veen, the 2014 recipient of the Michigan Environmental Council’s Helen and William Milliken Distinguished Service Award.

Vander Veen was visiting the Humms that rainy day to share scones baked by his wife, Susan, and deliver a children’s book—“Farming the Wind,” written by Susan and illustrated by their daughter Betsy—to Olin’s son Isaac, a second-grader. The book tells the story of family farmers finding a way to stay on their land by reaping new wealth from the wind. It’s an idea at the heart of his work.

Drive through Gratiot County on U.S. 127 and you can’t miss Vander Veen’s stunning symbol of Michigan’s accelerating transition to a clean-energy economy: 133 wind turbines nearly 500 feet tall that generate 212 megawatts of electricity, powering more than 50,000 homes.

The Gratiot County Wind Farm is our state’s largest, but the scale of the project is not what earned Vander Veen a reputation as a clean-power pioneer. It’s the community participation model he established in the process.

Disinformation campaigns find fertile ground when residents feel wind farms are thrust upon them. Vander Veen avoided not-in-my-backyard hysteria and cultivated strong community support by involving local families from the onset, engaging them in shaping the contours of the project and ensuring they’d enjoy their fair share of the windfall.

Empowering community
Vander Veen cut his wind-development teeth while leading the team behind the Great Lakes region’s first privately financed commercial-scale wind project. The two-turbine, 1.8 megawatt installation at Mackinaw City began selling power to Consumers Energy in 2001.

He had something much larger in mind for Gratiot County, and the tasks ahead were monumental: Study wind patterns. Choose the right turbines. Gain permission to connect them to the grid. Determine the best sites for the turbines and secure permits for each one. All told, he filed some 1,400 documents with the county clerk. The list of regulatory hurdles and minute details—and the ranks of lawyers, meteorologists and engineers involved—stretched to the horizon. Vander Veen and his partners would have to finance all of it with nothing to protect them if it failed.

But when he began speaking with prominent local families like the Humms in 2006, his initial questions were basic: How do we build the best project possible? And how can we strengthen the community while we’re at it?

Vander Veen quips that getting the locals on board took 50 cups of coffee per megawatt. At local diners and farmhouse kitchen tables, he and his team met at least three times with every landowner in the project area. He invited them all to sign a lease, and 250 agreed.

His inclusive approach also helped build the support local leaders needed to approve Michigan’s first countywide uniform zoning ordinance for siting wind turbines. Sixteen townships all adopted the ordinance – an achievement that has since attracted new wind development to Gratiot County.

“You’ve got to think beyond political boundaries,” Vander Veen says. “You can’t make things happen in this world by being parochial.”

His unique easement agreement provided a $1,000 upfront payment to each landowner, regardless of their acreage. Those with turbines or transmission lines on their property also get quarterly, per-acre payments that taken together total about $2 million per year.

“This can ensure the next couple of generations have the ability to stay farming, if that’s what they choose to do,” says Breckenridge Village Manager Jeff Ostrander.

They’ll have plenty of working land left to farm, thanks to Vander Veen’s careful siting of the turbines along field edges. Of 35,000 acres under lease for the project, only about 300 came out of production.

The wind farm has been a big shot in the arm for local governments. In 2012 it paid $1.28 million to Gratiot County, $1.56 million to local schools and more than $350,000 to townships. Wind revenue makes up a quarter of the budget in Bethany Township.

“You can feel the energy,” Ostrander says. “You can feel the growth. You can feel the momentum.”

The grand object
Vander Veen didn’t set out to be a wind developer. After graduating from James Madison College at Michigan State University, he went to work for the aerospace manufacturer Lear Siegler while also earning a law degree. He then became a partner at a Grand Rapids law firm where he got involved in utility law and developed an interest in clean energy and entrepreneurship.

“I love innovation,” he says. “I love entrepreneurial thinking. I gravitate toward entrepreneurs for whom it’s about way more than making money.”

He saw wind power as an entrepreneurial way to fulfill his passion for protecting family farms and the Great Lakes.

He also has promoted entrepreneurship through his involvement with EARTH University in Costa Rica. The W.K. Kellogg Foundation helped establish the school, and in 1991 invited Vander Veen to help it grow. The school’s mission is “to prepare leaders with ethical values to contribute to the sustainable development of the tropics and to construct a prosperous and just society.”

Vander Veen says he applied lessons from EARTH in creating the policy framework for Michigan’s clean-energy transition. As chairman of the Michigan Sustainable Energy Coalition, he helped to draft the law, passed in 2008, that requires Michigan utilities to get 10 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2015. He also was appointed by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm to the Great Lakes Offshore Wind Council and has served on several other clean-energy work groups.

Vander Veen grew up in Grand Rapids in a home where the highest calling was “putting your life to work to help other people,” he says. “The motivation every night when we went to bed was: We’ve been blessed. We hope we can use those blessings to help others.”

His father, Dick Vander Veen, was a congressman in the 1970s – the only member of Michigan’s congressional delegation to vote in favor of the Clean Air Act. He also was very active in a range of causes like promoting literacy and combating homelessness.

“The grand object of life,” he once wrote, “is to create something for the good of all that never existed before.”

They are words that perfectly describe his son’s career.

The lovely part
In 2009 Rich Vander Veen finalized a deal with Chicago-based Invenergy LLC to complete construction of the Gratiot County wind farm. Invenergy, which owns 69 of the turbines, negotiated a 20-year contract with DTE Energy—which owns the other 64—to buy power from the farm.

With his role in bringing Michigan’s largest wind farm to life complete, Rich and Susan are free to pursue other endeavors.

“Now we’re in the lovely part of our lives where we get to do what we want to do,” he says. For Vander Veen, who lives on Round Lake, north of Lowell, that means water. He is a passionate fan of the Great Lakes and enjoys any outdoor activities—sailing, hiking, cross-country skiing—that put him on or near the big water.

He also is an avid fly-fisherman – so much so that he co-founded and serves as president of the John D. Voelker Foundation, named for his late friend, the legendary Upper Peninsula angler and Michigan Supreme Court judge who wrote “Anatomy of a Murder” and other works under the pen name Robert Traver. The 25-year-old foundation promotes conservation of trout habitat and presents a prestigious annual prize for outstanding fiction about fly fishing. It also provides scholarships to help Native American students attend law school.

Vander Veen, 62, finds time on the water even sweeter when he’s with family. After decades of wanting to live on Lake Superior, he and Susan recently bought a home in Marquette. Their daughter Betsy, also in Marquette, is an educator at a historical center. Daughter Kate is a banker in Grand Rapids, and son Ben is a videographer in San Francisco. They also have three grandchildren: Julia, Eero and Remy.

Susan, a youth librarian, author and accomplished baker, helps to make sure his accomplishments don’t go to his head.

“If I’ve done anything right, it’s to surround myself with people smarter than I am,” Rich often says. To which Susan quickly replies: “In your case, Vander Veen, that’s easy.”

He enjoys the ribbing but doesn’t need help to stay grounded. He’s a man who quickly deflects praise.

“You can accomplish a great deal if you don’t care who gets the credit,” Vander Veen often says, quoting a mentor, the late Costa Rican Vice President Don Jorge Manuel Dengo, who he met through EARTH University.

“We simply empowered the community to reach its own goals,” he says of his role in the Gratiot County project. “The more we can do to increase our independence from fossil fuels, the better. We Michiganders need to innovate our way forward. No complaining allowed. Let’s pull together.”
-Andy McGlashen
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