LINCOLN — Wind energy developers say their industry has been shackled by state regulations that make it difficult to export electricity from Nebraska.
State lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday that advocates say will allow the free flow of Nebraska wind power to out-of-state markets. And lawmakers predicted it would encourage aggressive private development of wind farms that would otherwise go to Iowa, Kansas or Oklahoma.
“It’s going to happen somewhere,” said State Sen. Al Davis of Hyannis. “We can stand by and wring our hands, or we can take the plunge and move forward.”
Opponents tried to halt the proposal by arguing it would only help prop up an industry that relies too heavily on federal tax subsidies.
Others objected to how the measure was advanced by supporters, who not only failed to get it out of the Natural Resources Committee but waited to amend it to another bill on the second round of debate.
The tactic is permitted under the Legislature’s rules, but it essentially skipped two steps that nearly all other bills have taken.
“I think this goes too far,” said Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo.
The fact that lawmakers voted 32-8 to adopt the amendment shows how strongly the Legislature wants to encourage more wind energy development in Nebraska. They also voted 34-8 — one vote more than necessary — to break the opponents’ filibuster.
Nebraska ranks third nationally in winds ready to be tapped but behind all surrounding states except for Missouri when it comes to installed wind-generating capacity. For example, while Iowa had more than 6,200 megawatts of wind power capacity last year and Kansas had nearly 3,800 megawatts, Nebraska had 890.
A requirement that wind developers reach a power purchase agreement with out-of-state buyers represents one of the biggest hurdles to more rapid development in the state, said Sen. Ken Haar of Malcolm, who introduced the key language in the bill last year.
The bill would strike that requirement along with other more minor regulations. But he said wind projects still will have to go through several layers of state and federal regulations as well as obtain local approval before a single turbine is built.
“We’re not forcing wind on anybody,” he said.
The Nebraska Public Power District, Lincoln Electric System and the state Power Review Board all testified in a neutral position during a public hearing on the bill.
Haar and other supporters pointed out that a single large wind energy project can generate millions of dollars in annual lease payments to landowners and millions more in annual property tax revenue.
With so many in the agricultural community clamoring for property tax relief, wind power represents part of the answer, said Sen. John McCollister of Omaha. He also pointed out that the bill would have no fiscal impact on the state’s general fund.
“This is a good bill on all counts and doesn’t cost the people of Nebraska a single penny,” he said.
Opponents argued that because the wind doesn’t always blow, wind generation will never represent a reliable way to meet peak demand for power. They also said extending transmission lines to the counties with the highest wind potential further makes wind generation cost prohibitive.
Others expressed concerns that “deregulating” wind could generate excess supply, increase costs and hurt public power in Nebraska if it lessened the demand for coal. Coal-fired electrical plants supply the majority of Nebraska’s electricity.
But opponents most frequently cited opposition to the federal wind production tax credit, which Congress extended for five more years late last year. Sen. Curt Friesen of Henderson argued that without the tax incentives, wind projects simply could not compete with cheaper forms of fossil fuel generation such as natural gas.
“We just keep throwing more tax subsidies at this generating source that we don’t even need,” he said.
The proposal needs to clear the third round of consideration and be signed by the governor before it becomes law.
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