LINCOLN — A legislative proposal to inspire more development of Nebraska’s potential for wind power was billed Wednesday as opening the door, not the floodgates, to wind turbines.
“This is a measured bill. I do not expect its passage will result in a modern-day gold rush of developers flocking to Nebraska,” Michael Donahue, co-owner of Midwest Wind Energy, relayed in written testimony.
But a group of landowners from wind-swept Banner County praised the proposal as opening the way for an 800-turbine wind farm and 450 permanent jobs in a sparsely populated corner of the Panhandle.
“We’re just kind of pinching ourselves over what is happening,” said Jim Young of the Banner County Wind Energy Association.
Those views were aired as State Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler rolled out a far-reaching wind energy proposal that has been the subject of study and negotiations over the past year by the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee.
The goal of Legislative Bill 1048, Langemeier told a packed public hearing, is to encourage development of large, privately-owned wind farms that would export power to other states, while not harming the public power utilities in Nebraska, which deliver the nation’s fifth-cheapest rates for electricity.
Langemeier said that while more tweaking of state laws might be needed later, LB 1048 opens the door for exporters and protects public power.
“Is there always something more that someone would like to have? Yes,” he said. “(But) this is a responsible way to go forward.”
Nebraska has lagged in developing wind energy, which lawmakers have said robs the state of a lucrative rural development and tax revenue producer.
The state now ranks No. 4 nationally in wind potential. But it lagged behind at No. 24 in wind energy generation at the end of 2009, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
By contrast, neighboring Iowa ranks No. 2 nationally in wind-power generation, producing more than 20 times the wind power of the higher wind potential Cornhusker State.
The main reason is Nebraska’s unique status as the nation’s only public power state. Its laws serve to block projects that generate power for export and, for several years, blocked access to generous federal incentives.
LB 1048 attempts to untangle that web. If it makes possible the 1,000-megawatt wind farm in the Panhandle, that would increase Nebraska’s wind generation by more than six-fold.
The bill, in its current form, would:
Ÿ Allow the Nebraska Power Review Board to permit “certified renewable export facilities.” They would have to obtain power purchase agreements with durations of at least 10 years, working with utilities outside the state.
Such purchase agreements would require studies of transmission lines and of whether more would need to be built.
Representatives of the Nebraska Public Power District and Omaha Public Power District said that was critical to avoid rate hikes for customers.
Ÿ Require private wind developers to set up a decommissioning fund after 10 years to protect landowners from those costs.
Ÿ Grant a personal property tax exemption on wind-farm components and replace it with a “nameplate capacity tax” on wind farms.
The change, Langemeier said, would generate the same amount of taxes but spread out the revenues over 20 years rather than just five. A 1,000-megawatt wind farm would generate $3.5 million a year in taxes, to be distributed among schools and other local taxing bodies.
Not all were happy with the bill, and some who testified Wednesday said Nebraska’s public power-based laws always would keep some developers out.
The requirement for 10-year power purchase agreements is one barrier, said Andy Pollock of the Nebraska Energy Export Association, which includes landowners, as well as developers.
Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs said incentives should be offered to increase Nebraska ownership in the wind farms, which would increase the benefits to the state.
Pollock characterized the bill as moving the wind-development issue 60 yards down a 100-yard football field.
“It’s still a big step forward, but we’ve got a couple issues left that keep us out of the red zone,” he said.
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