New developments help Nebraska take advantage of its capacity for wind power, which accounted for more than 10 percent of its energy in 2016

4/27/2017

Nebraska’s wind capacity is fourth-best in the country when it comes to the potential for producing electricity, but the state lags behind 16 others when it comes to actually tapping that resource.

That could soon change, though, as more high-profile wind developments come blowing through — one, the 400-megawatt Grande Prairie project in Holt County, already is helping Nebraska catch up to its potential, industry watchers say.

That project is feeding on the Cornhusker State’s largely unrealized wind potential. As the largest wind farm built anywhere in the U.S. last year, Grand Prairie pushed wind’s share of electricity generated in Nebraska to more than 10 percent, according to the latest annual report from the American Wind Energy Association.

That’s up from less than 3 percent just 5 years ago, according to federal energy data.

There’s still more room to grow, industry experts say, even after the decadelong push into wind that has been fueled by federal tax credits. Wind is getting even more attractive as a source of power, they say, as improved technology makes it less expensive to use to produce power.

Some even refer to Nebraska as the Saudi Arabia of wind, nodding to that country’s primacy in oil.

And while wind advocates and industry types in Nebraska celebrate the state hitting the 10 percent mark in production of wind power, next door in Iowa, they’re already well ahead. Nearly 37 percent of that state’s power came from wind last year, a larger share than in any other state, according to the wind energy group’s U.S. Wind Industry 2016 Annual Report. That’s primarily because utility companies in Iowa are private; they can take advantage of federal tax credits that allow qualifying projects to claim production-based tax benefits for 10 years to encourage wind development. Nebraska’s electric companies are all public — owned by cities or ratepayers — and aren’t eligible for the federal tax credits.

David Bracht, director of the Nebraska Energy Office, a state agency with responsibilities including the collection and analysis of energy statistics and information, says there’s still plenty of incentive to develop wind power in the state.

“Not to denigrate Iowa’s wind resources, but I think that, without question, Nebraska is seen as a better resource,” Bracht said. Put simply: There’s more wind blowing in Nebraska.

The recent wind energy group’s report supports that premise. It stated that wind farms in Nebraska were generating electricity 45 percent of the time on average last year. (The big wind turbines can’t spin — or generate electricity — if there’s no wind, of course.)

By that measure, in no other state did the wind blow more often.

Said Bracht: “By definition, the undeveloped wind project sites we have (in Nebraska) are all very, very good, particularly compared to what has been developed already in Iowa, Kansas and South Dakota, to a lesser degree.”

That’s not to say development in those states, particularly in Iowa, is slowing down. Des Moines-based MidAmerican Energy is getting ready to build another 1,000 turbines to join the more than 2,000 it already owns in the Hawkeye State. The utility will spend $3.6 billion to get the project finished by year-end 2019.

MidAmerican, which is owned by Omaha-based Berkshire Hathaway, isn’t just building in Iowa, though. A subsidiary, BHE Renewables, is behind the Grande Prairie development that on its own was enough to cover Nebraska’s admission into the group of 13 other states that have also crossed the 10-percent generation threshold, according to the wind energy group.

Grande Prairie took Nebraska to another milestone in 2016: The project’s completion took the state’s total wind-generating capacity beyond 1,000 megawatts, making it one of 18 states with at least that much wind energy, the AWEA report stated.

Some of the heavy hitters are right on Nebraska’s doorstep: In Iowa and Kansas, where wind accounts for 37 percent and 30 percent of all in-state electric generation, respectively, nearly 6,500 turbines are in the ground.

In Colorado, more than 1,900 turbines comprised 17 percent of all generation there last year.

Barring federal legislative action, federal tax credits for wind are due to phase out by 2020. Critics have opposed the subsidies, characterizing them as handouts that have returned little to taxpayers. Advocates, meanwhile, point to the 102,500 jobs they say have sprung up around the industry, as well as lower energy prices for ratepayers.

Even though it can’t claim the federal tax credits available to its investor-owned brethren, OPPD and other public power utilities capitalize on wind by signing contracts with private turbine owners, like the Omaha utility did at Grande Prairie. Those agreements have made better economic sense in recent years as wind energy technology has improved and become less costly — and even as natural gas prices have fallen from record highs in the mid- and late-2000s.

Electricity prices closely follow the price of natural gas, and since wind turbines have no fuel costs to generate electricity like plants that run on coal, natural gas or nuclear fission, utilities like Iowa’s MidAmerican have been able to avoid rate increases. Officials there have estimated they won’t need to ask state regulators to approve a rate hike until 2029 at the earliest.

Yet Nebraska is pulling more weight among the draftiest states in the central and upper Great Plains. The 200 new turbines at Grande Prairie pushed the turbine count in the Cornhusker State to 741 as of the end of last year.

And there could be even more in the wings: The Omaha Public Power District, which purchases all the output from the 200 turbines at the Grande Prairie project, will soon enter a contract to pick up as much as 450 megawatts of additional renewable energy.

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