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Dec 27, 2010

Wind Energy Projects Accelerating

From The World Herald Bureau
By Leslie Reed

Lincoln, Nebraska – Two new wind farms are beginning commercial operation in Nebraska in the waning days of the year.

Meanwhile, a Chicago-based company has won initial approval from state authorities to proceed with its plans to build a 200-megawatt farm between Elgin and Petersburg. It would be Nebraska’s largest wind energy farm so far.

“It was a great year for wind development in the state of Nebraska,” said Patrick Dalseth, a project manager for Midwest Wind Energy, which developed one of the newly operational wind farms.

The Laredo Ridge wind farm near Petersburg, with a capacity of 80 megawatts, is scheduled to begin commercial operation this week. Midwest Wind Energy developed the facility in conjunction with California-based Edison Mission and the Nebraska Public Power District.

The Flat Water Wind Farm, capable of generating a maximum 60 megawatts of electricity, began commercial operation Tuesday at its location near DuBois. It will provide power to the Omaha Public Power District.

The two new farms will nearly double Nebraska’s wind energy production capacity.

Before the latest two, Nebraska had five wind farms, capable of generating about 150 megawatts.

Nebraska’s wind energy production has fulfilled only a fraction of its estimated potential and remains only a fraction of that generated by the state’s nuclear and coal-fired plants.

NPPD’s Gerald Gentleman Station, a coal-fired plant near Sutherland, has a production capacity of 1,280 megawatts, for example, said utility spokesman Mark Becker. The Cooper Nuclear Station near Brownville has a production capacity of 800 megawatts.

In October, the Nebraska Power Review Board gave a green light to a proposal from Invenergy, a Chicago company that has developed wind farms in Iowa, Colorado, Texas and New York. The company hopes to build a 133-turbine, $448 million farm between Elgin and Petersburg, southwest of Norfolk.

Called Prairie Breeze Wind Energy Center, the new farm would sprawl over 45,000 acres in the same general area as the Laredo Ridge farm and a 40.5-megawatt farm expected to be completed in 2011.

Prairie Breeze’s 200 megawatts would give it more than twice as much capacity as the next-largest facilities in Nebraska.

It is the first project initiated under a 2010 law designed to make it easier for investor-owned utilities to develop wind farms in Nebraska. The law applies to projects in which 90 percent of the energy produced will be sold to customers outside Nebraska.

Mark Jacobson of Invenergy said the area is attractive because of strong winds, transmission lines with available capacity and community support.

No date has been set for the start of construction.

The Power Review Board voted in October to give the project conditional approval, said the board’s executive director, Tim Texel. Invenergy has 30 months to complete its plans and return to the board for final approval.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and a leading advocate for wind energy in the state, said the conditional approval is no guarantee that the project will be built.

“They’ve been cleared for takeoff, but do they have a place to fly?” he asked.

Texel and Hansen said that the economic downturn has depressed demand for energy and that existing utilities have seen declining sales of surplus power.

Hansen said that lenders remain cautious about financing such projects and that the company will need to land customers before proceeding.

Investor-owned utilities will need to rely on publicly owned transmission lines to deliver power to the customers who need it.

Nebraska is ranked by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory as the state with the third-highest wind energy potential.

Wind energy projects, however, have been slow to develop in Nebraska, where electric power is generated and transmitted exclusively by publicly owned utilities.

The state requires the public utilities to provide power at the lowest possible cost, said Texel, and current sources of energy in Nebraska cost less than wind power.

The new law helps foster wind energy development by allowing private companies to develop wind power for sale outside Nebraska at more competitive rates.

Nebraska does not require that a certain percentage of its power be provided through renewable sources, a provision that has fostered wind energy development in other states.

Public power agencies also are not eligible for federal tax credits that have helped foot the bill for developing wind energy elsewhere in the United States.