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NPPD will look at cost of wind farm

(Friday, Aug. 15, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World-Herald, 07/29/03: Little by little, Nebraska may be moving toward capitalizing on its abundance of wind as a source of electricity.

The Nebraska Public Power District is taking bids to determine the cost of building a mini-wind farm that would generate 15, 30 or 50 megawatts of electricity.

Although that's far from the hundreds of megawatts being generated in some neighboring states, it's a marked jump from the utility's previous goal of simply adding 5 megawatts. If NPPD, which serves most of the state, goes for the full 50 megawatts, it would more than quadruple the amount of wind energy being generated in Nebraska, from about 14 megawatts now to about 64.

In another potentially important development, the Nebraska Legislature this year lowered one of the regulatory hurdles that utilities face in developing renewable energy. State law, utilities have said, prevented them from developing wind farms because it required them to pick the lowest-cost, yet feasible, option when building new energy plants.

Wind power, utilities have calculated, costs more than other fuels and would drive up customer bills.

This past session, the Legislature gave the Power Review Board, which regulates power plant development, the latitude to consider "other public benefits" for small-scale energy projects of up to 10 megawatts.

That's an important step, said State Sen. Don Preister of Omaha, because renewable energy is better for the public's health and the state's rural economy.

Each year, Nebraska's power plants send 68,000 tons of pollutants into the air, including lead, mercury, radioactive material and other pollutants. Those can cause a variety of health problems. Any change that utilities can make toward cleaner fuel, Preister said, is bound to improve Nebraskans' health.

Furthermore, wind farms provide a boon to rural economies, he said, because of the money the land leases generate. Coal plants, on the other hand, send money out of state for fuel purchases.

While Nebraska is ranked as the sixth-windiest state in the nation, less than 1 percent of the state's electricity comes from wind. Surrounding states, with far less wind, derive much more electricity from it.

Nebraska has about 14 megawatts of wind energy on line now. Iowa has about 423 megawatts, and an additional 310 megawatts are planned by MidAmerican Energy Co.

The 14 megawatts on line in Nebraska is enough to power possibly 4,000 to 5,000 homes.

Tim Texel, executive director of the state Power Review Board, said the regulatory changes made by the Legislature signal a significant shift.

"This is the first change in decades to our criteria," Texel said. "This gives utilities an option to look at renewables, and they didn't have that before."

The 10-megawatt limit was established to give utilities a chance to learn from smaller projects, Texel said, while serving as a brake on projects that would be large enough to drive up rates.

And in rural areas, 10 megawatts is enough electricity to power several villages and small cities. If the costs work out, communities could band together, Texel said, and generate their own electricity from renewable energy.

"Things are changing," Texel said. "This change acknowledges that the road should be opened up to make renewables available . . . It remains to be seen how much this will open things up."

The cost-effectiveness of wind energy depends upon wind speeds and consistency. NPPD has found land south of Ainsworth that produces "very good" wind, said Beth Boesch, an NPPD spokeswoman.

Whether NPPD builds a wind farm and how large it would be will depend upon the bids, Boesch said. The utility also is trying to gauge public support for wind projects, she said, as part of polling that it is conducting.

If the utility decides to move forward with this project, she said, the windmills probably would be up and running by late 2004 or spring 2005.

Much work remains, Preister said, before the state's utilities more fully embrace wind power. The Legislature, he said, needs to provide a little more carrot and a little more stick.

The carrot, he said, would be financial incentives. A proposed bill would provide utilities with a rebate on the sales tax. But given the state's budget crisis, lawmakers have been in no mood to forgo sales-tax revenue.

The stick that Preister would impose would be to set a mandatory minimum of electricity that a utility must generate from renewable energy.

The Omaha Public Power District, with its location in the less-windy eastern side of the state, has targeted methane gas from the Douglas County landfill as its primary source of green energy.

Board member Anne McGuire sees renewable energy as becoming increasingly important.

"We could get blindsided if we didn't look at renewables for the future," she said. "In the future, you should be able to go beyond coal and gas - and you have to start investing in the future right now."