Whirling Crops

Still lagging its neighbors on wind production, Nebraska has reason for optimism

When State Sen. Ken Haar drives through Iowa or Colorado and sees the towering turbines that have helped make Nebraska's neighbors national leaders in wind-power production, “It makes me think we've got this great energy resource in Nebraska and we're not using it,” he says. Nebraska is among the country's leaders in potential wind power capacity, but has just nine more wind turbines than it has members on its Husker football roster. And the state is a long way from joining the country's big 10 in renewable energy production. Iowa is second only to Texas in wind-power generation, producing 8,799 MW* in 2010, and ranks 7th in potential** wind-power capacity. Colorado's 2,430 MW in 2010 ranked 11th in the country, while it has the 12th highest potential capacity. Meanwhile, Nebraska ranks fourth in the country in potential capacity (almost 918,000 MW) but 25th in actual production with 432 MW in 2010. But there are signs of progress. Nebraska nearly doubled its capacity in November when the 40 turbines on the Flat Water wind farm near Humboldt, and the 54 turbines on the Laredo Ridge wind farm near Petersburg, began whirling. The farms will produce enough energy to serve about 45,000 Nebraskans annually, according to the Nebraska Energy Office. Four other projects — near Springview, Petersburg, Broken Bow and Crofton — would add another 313.5 MW when they begin operation by the end of 2012. Powering Nebraska on renewable energy — while cutting the state's dependence on dirty coal — is important, proponents say. But to fully harness its wind's potential, and to cultivate the resource into a job-creating, rural-developing industry, Nebraska will have to export it like its corn. Lawmakers passed a landmark bill last year that could help the state become a leading energy exporter. Gov. Dave Heineman signed LB 1048 into law last April, allowing Nebraska's Public Power Review Board to consider renewable projects — wind, solar, biomass or landfill gas — that would send 90 percent of their energy out of state, while selling the other 10 percent back to the state's public power companies. Nebraska is the country's only state that exclusively uses public power. The board previously had to consider projects that directed energy domestically. The bill had early success. The day it took effect, Chicago's Invenergy LLC announced a plan to build a $448 million, 133-turbine wind farm near Elgin and Neleigh that would produce 200 MW of energy for export. The review board approved the plan, but Invenergy has yet to announce a construction date. In Iowa, 80 businesses and 2,300 manufacturing jobs are powered by the wind industry, according to a recent study by The Environmental Law and Policy Center. Wind advocates would like to see the same thing happen here. “There would be nothing better for Nebraska or for this country than to really embrace an aggressive, homegrown energy development,” says Rich Lombardi, a registered lobbyist with the Wind Coalition who represents developers in Lincoln. He admits the recession has made potential investors skittish. “We're certainly not immune to the disturbances that are affecting all other parts of the economy,” he says. “People are probably reluctant to possibly invest.” Haar says investment in infrastructure to transmit Nebraska's wind power outside the state is critical. But with Republicans in control of the House, and Democrats on the defensive about government spending, Congress appears increasingly unlikely to pass a bill to create the transmission superhighway President Barack Obama has called for. An April poll conducted by Rasmusson Reports found fewer likely voters (57 percent) now say investing in renewable energy is the best long-term investment for America compared to 66 percent in January. Haar was one of two state senators to vote with Nebraska's League of Conservation Voters 100 percent of the time during the previous legislative session — earning him a gold star in the nonprofit's legislative scorecard. He says Americans are “schizophrenic” on energy. “We'd like the energy security and like to use renewable energy sources and stuff, but we really don't want to change,” he says. “It's going to probably cost a little more to construct the transmission that we need, but the neat thing about renewable energies is that you pay for them up front – the capital cost is up front – and then you can predict the cost of that energy for decades, unlike the cost of natural gas, which has gone up and down, and coal, which is increasing. Haar expects the poor economy and increased concern about rising national debt among voters will push renewable energy down on state and federal leaders' priority lists. “And in the long run, we're shooting ourselves in the foot,” he says, “because there's nobody that believes the cost of burning fossil fuels is going to decrease.” Nebraska imported more than 14.5 million short tons of coal from Wyoming in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. That coal generates more than 38 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), the primary human cause of climate change, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists. It's the CO2 equivalent of cutting down 1.6 billion trees a year. “I'm a strong believer that climate change is happening, and human beings are a large part of that,” Haar says. “And I look at Nebraska's economy, and one thing that kind of frustrates me is every ton of coal that we import from Wyoming to generate our electricity from their coal plants is helping them pay their taxes. So, if you live in Wyoming, you pay very little property tax on a home because Nebraska and all the other states are paying their property taxes.” While consumer confidence in the economy may be limiting investment in renewable energy, other economic forces could serve as motivation, according to Lombardi. “I think that $4 gas always has tendency to focus people on energy a little bit more,” he says. Nebraskans are used to windmills on their landscape — they've been a part of the state's energy solutions for more than 150 years, when settlers began using wooden structures to pump water for homes and livestock. Graham Christensen, public affairs director for the Nebraska Farmer's Union, says the electrical grid's expansion across Nebraska created “a little less need to be self-sustainable.” But the Farmer's Union has been pushing wind power for more than 20 years. “People kind of looked at us funny, like, 'That's a far-fetched idea.' or 'It can't work,'” he says. “Well, we kept hammering on it as an additional crop to a diversified ag portfolio.” For whatever reason, most Nebraskans like wind energy. In fact, 94 percent of Nebraska voters had favorable impressions of wind power, and 69 percent had strong favorable opinions in an April 2010 poll conducted by the Center for Rural Affairs, American Wind Energy Association and Wind Coalition and Energy Foundation. “Nebraskans, and particularly rural Nebraskans, I think, everybody understands the power of the wind here. And it's really cultural,” Lombardi says. “... This issue just unites people like no other issue does. And, for the most part, I think everybody gets that this is the direction we need to go. And I think we're going that way. Haar thinks he knows what the state must do to create the turbine farms that turn heads on the interstate. “We have to try and make Nebraska attractive for wind generation,” he says. “I'm not going to make believers out of anybody about climate change. But the fact that state senators drive to Colorado, Kansas, Iowa and South Dakota and see huge wind farms — that show and tell is going to have its effect.” * U.S. Energy Information Administration ** National Renewable Energy Laboratory [NOTE: This story was changed on April 21 to reflect that Nebraska is not the U.S. leader in wind capacity, rather, it ranks fourth.]

posted at 11:09 am
on Wednesday, April 13th, 2011

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