DIXON COUNTY, Neb. — Standing near the base of a towering white wind turbine on a sunny June afternoon, Imanol San Martin surveyed the rolling hills of the surrounding farmland, taking note of the wind’s strength.
“It’s a good day,” the Enel Green North America executive said. “A good day for generation.”
At the Rattlesnake Creek Wind Farm, located two hours north of Omaha near Emerson, Allen and Wakefield, any day with strong wind is a good one: One of the world’s largest social media companies relies on the farm to power its thousands of servers.
Thanks to Rattlesnake Creek, which is operated by Enel Green North America, Facebook’s data center in Papillion — officially online this month — can claim to be 100% powered by renewable energy.
Facebook’s renewable energy model may offer a glimpse into Nebraska’s future, one powered by thousands of windmills dotting the state’s rural landscape, converting air into clean, cheaper energy.
The state has been slow to embrace the alternative energy source and hasn’t kept pace with some of its Midwest peers. But Nebraska — with its abundant land and strong wind speeds — could be among the nation’s leaders in wind energy output, experts say.
A 20-year project to power Facebook
Leave Omaha on West Dodge Road toward Waterloo, then head north on Highway 275 past Valley, Scribner and West Point. Hop on Highway 9, keep north and you’ll see the silhouettes of the wind turbines long before you reach the $430 million Rattlesnake Creek Wind Farm, spread over 55 square miles of land — a little more than half the size of Lincoln.
For at least the next 20 years, Rattlesnake Creek, which began operating in December, will provide the renewable energy that Facebook requires for its data centers. Until 2029, Facebook is using 310 of the 320 megawatts of power produced by the 101-turbine wind farm; the remaining portion is sold to software company Adobe.
After the first decade, Facebook will require all 320 megawatts, which could power about 100,000 households a year, according to Enel.
Rattlesnake Creek is the second-largest wind farm in the state.
Despite where the imagination may lead, there aren’t massive underground cables connecting the wind farm to the Papillion data center 100 miles south.
Rather, the power generated in Dixon County is directed to the state’s power grid. Facebook then purchases power from the Omaha Public Power District, which approved a special rate structure to allow Facebook to use 100% wind energy.
Rob Stupar, manager of regulatory and institutional affairs at Enel Green Power North America, compared the model to a lake.
“(Facebook is) pulling water out of the lake, and we’re putting water into the lake,” he said.
Nebraska, a “world-class” wind state, lags in Midwest
Nebraska’s vast land, sparse rural populations and “world-class wind” give the state great potential to be a leading wind energy producer, says Josh Moenning, director of New Power Nebraska, an organization that promotes wind energy development.
The state is situated in the middle of one of the best “wind corridors” in the country, Moenning said, which stretches from North Dakota to north-central Texas. That corridor, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, records some of the highest average wind speeds in the nation, typically between 16 and 20 mph. Rattlesnake Creek’s turbines are activated when the wind reaches 6 mph.
Those conditions make Nebraska the No. 3 state in the nation in terms of wind energy potential, according to New Power Nebraska. But Moenning, also the mayor of Norfolk, said the state has been slow to embrace the energy source.
“It’s … a wind state, (but) up to this point we’ve not utilized those resources like our neighboring states,” he said.
Take Iowa. While the Hawkeye State has less overall potential for wind energy production, the state outperforms Nebraska by just about any metric. For example:
Nebraska’s current wind energy capacity can power about 493,000 homes in a year. Iowa produces more than 4½ times that amount.
Wind energy last year provided more than 14% of all in-state electricity production in Nebraska. In Iowa, it accounted for more than 33%.
North Dakota, Colorado, Kansas and Oklahoma all outpace Nebraska in their wind energy efforts.
“Harnessing more of Nebraska’s wind potential could make the state a powerhouse for the wind industry while providing savings for electricity customers,” the American Wind Energy Association wrote in a 2018 report.
How wind energy keeps Facebook's Papillion servers running
Wind energy pumps millions into rural Nebraska
Why should Nebraska care that it’s not maximizing its wind energy potential? Those in the business point to the millions of dollars that go to farmers and local governments as a driving motivator.
Over the expected 20-year life of Rattlesnake Creek, something like $90 million is anticipated to be paid to Dixon County and its residents.
About $35 million of that — $1.7 million a year — will go to the county through property and other taxes. The other $55 million or so will go to landowners, from whom the wind farm leases land for the turbines, access roads and generators.
Krista Barnaby, director of media and public relations for Enel Green North America, said Rattlesnake Creek serves as an example of the financial benefits of wind energy.
“The county knows — the landowners know — that for the next, at minimum 20 years, that will be income that they’ll be getting,” she said.
There’s also little disruption to landowners, Moenning noted. The turbines don’t cause pollution. They don’t require water use. And they don’t take up a lot of land.
“It virtually takes up very little space that disrupts farming practices,” Moenning said.
Opponents of wind farms typically criticize the noise or sight of the turbines. Amy Watchorn, Dixon County’s assessor, said her office has received one phone call complaint about the project.
Other than that, she said, “I haven’t heard anything good or bad.”
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Winds of change
Recently, wind energy production in Nebraska has begun to increase.
An April report from the American Wind Energy Association says Nebraska in 2018 added 558 megawatts of wind energy capacity — the biggest increase in the nation by percentage. It was enough to power an additional 139,500 homes.
The Nebraska Legislature in 2016 passed LB 824, which removed some regulatory barriers connected to wind energy. Stupar, the Enel regulatory a0nd institutional affairs manager, said the bill enabled companies like Enel to more easily work in Nebraska, the only state with statewide public power.
“You can see that growth in the industry has really kicked off after that point,” Stupar said.
Facebook isn’t the only corporation dipping into wind energy. The J. M. Smucker Co., known for its jellies and jams, announced last August that beginning in 2020, wind energy produced by the Plum Creek Wind Project in Wayne County will provide about 50% of its electricity use.
Last spring, Hormel Foods Corp. said it plans to partner with a wind farm expected to open in Milligan next year. Many more projects in Nebraska are either in development or being constructed.
“If all the projects that are currently in development or various stages of construction come to fruition,” Moenning said, “we’ll more than double our current capacity.”