Nebraska Races to Catch Its Windy Neighbors
By: Carmelo Lattuca
Amid acres of swaying grasslands and rows of corn and soybeans, a newcomer rises high above the Nebraska prairie.
Giant steel wind turbines three times the size of a cottonwood spin in the state’s steady breeze. The spinning towers now churn out 20% of Nebraska’s electricity, more than 16 times the output from just a decade ago.
To advocates, the structures are a welcome addition to the landscape. They provide farmers with a new source of income, counties with a new tax revenue stream, and Nebraskans with hundreds of new, clean energy jobs.
They also offer the nation a way to reduce the outflow of carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere that are leading to dramatic changes in the climate, including, likely, the devastating “bomb cyclone” in Nebraska in 2019 that cost the state at least $1 billion in damage.
“Between sea level rise. Temperature rise. Wildfires. Hurricanes. That is all happening a lot quicker,” says Rich Lombardi, Nebraska director of the Advanced Power Alliance, a trade association that promotes renewables as leading sources of energy generation. “You really can’t move quick enough to deal with the disasters that are unfurling here.”
Lombardi and other backers say Nebraska is well-positioned to contribute to the global fight against climate change. High and low-pressure systems meet east of the Rocky Mountains, generating more potential for wind energy generation here than all but two states. Once the wind starts, the crops and grasses offer little resistance, leaving it to turbine blades over half the size of a 747’s wingspan to catch it and make power.
But not everyone likes the new look. Critics see wind turbines as damaging to the landscape and say the tall structures disrupt the view in pristine places such as the Sandhills.
Belinda Fowler, environmental assistance coordinator at the Nebraska Department of Environment and Energy, agrees that wind energy can help reduce fossil fuel use. But she’s wary a rush to development will diminish the solemn beauty of Nebraska’s open horizon.
“I struggle with the disruptions to the natural landscape,” said Fowler, an Environmental Planning professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “There’s just a sense of peace that comes when you get a look across an entire landscape and see very limited signs of inhabitancy. You drive up on a wind farm, and maybe you’re not feeling as relaxed about it.”
Nebraskans are much more likely to bump into a wind farm now than they would have been 10 years ago. There are 29 wind farms operating from Kimball to Humboldt, many concentrated in the northeastern part of the state. Another six are under construction and an additional 21 have been proposed.
Nebraska’s rapid wind energy growth tracks the nation’s. In the past decade, wind power has more than tripled as a percentage of the electricity generation in the U.S. It now accounts for 7.3% of the total, making wind the single largest source of renewable energy in the U.S.
There are more than 60,000 turbines spinning in fields from sea to sea — and a few in the sea itself. Collectively, the wind turbines can generate nearly 112,000 megawatts of power. As a reference, the 230-megawatt Plum Creek Wind project in Wayne County, Nebraska, is enough to light 100,000 homes.
But while Nebraska ranks 7th in terms of the share of electricity generated by wind, it’s behind its neighboring states in the nation’s windy interior. Wind accounts for just under 20% of Nebraska’s electricity. Iowa generates nearly 42% and Kansas more than 41% from wind.
Nebraska could be doing much more, says former State Sen. Ken Haar, who advocated for the industry in the Legislature. Lombardi said Nebraska’s wind is steadier than even Iowa’s, making it a less intermittent source of power.
“The capacity factor for Nebraska wind is very high,” Haar, an environmentalist, said. “That’s a good deal.”
The biggest benefit of wind projects is that they can dramatically lower CO2 emissions. The American Wind Energy Association estimates that the carbon emissions saved by wind energy in the US equals the output from 42 million cars. Nebraska’s wind energy industry saved 6.4 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2018. That equates to 1.4 million cars’ worth of emissions.
Nebraska, though it’s out of reach from rising seas and devastating hurricanes, is still threatened by climate change. According to the 2014 UNL climate study, increasing temperatures could lower crop yields in Nebraska and increase the intensity of rainstorms, leading to more soil loss.
And while scientists have yet to pinpoint a cause of the bomb cyclone that devastated farms and communities along the Niobrara and Missouri rivers, they expect climate change will create more severe weather events.
“We have underestimated as society the true costs of having an economy based upon fossil and nuclear fuels,” Lombardi said.
While nuclear power produces gobs of carbon-free power, it also leaves behind dangerous radioactive waste, and the U.S. has yet to approve a permanent repository for it.
Beyond reducing emissions, wind power also reduces water use, not a small thing in a state that depends on crop irrigation.
According to the Nebraska Power Alliance, Nebraska saved 7.1 billion in gallons of water from 2011-2018 in electricity generation by utilizing wind energy instead of coal power.
Agriculture is the single biggest source of water consumption in the U.S. Scientists say droughts will become more frequent and last longer in a warmer world. Farmers and ranchers across Nebraska have had to contend with drought this year.
In a red state without a climate action plan, wind energy advocates are as likely to talk about the economic benefits as they are to note the environmental pros. Since 2003, the wind energy industry has created more than 7,000 construction jobs in the state and paid more than $24 million to landowners through lease payments, according to the power alliance.
State Sen. John McCollister said farmers can get $10,000 for each turbine on their property. McCollister has introduced a bill to mandate the state generate 75% of its median annual generation from renewable sources by 2030. The measure has stalled in the Legislature.
David Levy, a lobbyist for the wind industry, said that with companies like Amazon and Google pledging to use more renewables, wind energy provides Nebraska with a golden business opportunity.
“This isn’t some fringe, sort of one-off, tree-hugging, hippie enterprise,” Levy said. “This is the biggest companies on the planet wanting to buy the output of this industry.”
Developers pay property taxes on each turbine, and the assets don’t depreciate over time. Wind projects in Wayne and Holt Counties will generate more than $5 million in property tax revenue annually, which may lower the tax burden on residents there.
Holt County farmer Mike Zakrzewski said payments helped his district build a new school. Meanwhile, the 10 turbines on his property have helped him weather the vagaries of commodity markets. Zakrzewski suffers from osteoarthritis, and the lease payments allowed him to reduce his workload on the farm to take time for knee replacement surgery.
He said he immediately recognized the opportunity when the wind development representatives first told him his county had an above-average wind resource.
“As soon as they knocked on my door, I brought them in and wouldn’t let them go until they got the damn project built,” he said.
The quick rise of the wind energy, however, isn’t seen as an unalloyed good in some parts of the state. In the Sandhills, a sparsely populated area of rolling hills and swaying grasslands, the battle over clean air and aesthetics is playing out.
Bluestem Energy Solutions of Omaha and Sandhills Wind Energy of Valentine want to build a 60-megawatt, 19 turbine wind farm in the Kilgore area of Cherry County. David Hamilton, a fourth generation Thedford rancher, supports the project. The country is moving away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, he said, and Nebraska is in a great position to benefit.
“I remember when my grandfather talked about burning cow chips. Then, they transitioned to wood, and from wood to coal,” said Hamilton, who is vice president of the Cherry County Wind Energy Association. “We’re in one of those transition periods, and I just see an opportunity.”
But state Sen. Tom Brewer, the only Native American in the Legislature, said the Sandhills is a unique ecological area that should be preserved. Wind development will fragment the land and poses risks to endangered species such as the whooping crane that migrate through the Central Flyway.
The threat to birds is a common complaint, though cats and windows kill more. This year, the Nature Conservancy produced a map identifying 2.3 million acres in the state it considers safe to build turbines.
Another issue for Brewer is he sees wind projects as creating conflicts among families who have turbines on their property and get a direct financial benefit and their neighbors who don’t.
“It’s so disappointing, because I’ve seen nothing that causes more controversy than this has in the district,” Brewer said.
Another effort that is creating controversy in the Sandhills is the R-Project, a proposed transmission line that would extend from Sutherland along I-80 to Thedford, in central Nebraska, and then east into Holt County. Because wind resources are typically the highest in sparsely populated rural areas, wind projects need power lines to carry the electricity to the cities that need the power. To critics, that’s another eyesore.
Proponents say the R-Project will enhance reliability of transmission and relieve congestion of power lines already in the Nebraska Public Power District. The project could also provide an opportunity for renewable energy to be developed. As of this writing, a federal judge in Colorado has suspended the R-Project. The judge cited the potential damage to O’Fallon’s Bluff, which is a landmark on the Oregon Trail.
Construction and maintenance will “scar the landscape in these virgin Sandhills,” Brewer said. “Now we’re going to be doing that for hundreds of miles. And so, I don’t think you’ll ever repair that scar.”
Because of these local considerations, McCollister said that the towns directly impacted should decide for themselves whether wind projects make sense.
“It’s all in the eye of the beholder. It’s like beauty,” he said. “You get a landowner that’s got 10 turbines on his property, and maybe what he thinks is beautiful is that checkbook where he sees all the payments coming from the wind company.”
But he acknowledges not everyone will agree.
Haar, the former state senator, said no energy source is perfect. But right now, as the effects of climate change seem to grow more severe each year, wind energy development may be the best solution.
“As with everything, there’s a trade-off,” Haar said. “In my view, the trade-off that we make now is burning fossil fuels. I mean, that’s a trade-off. That’s harming the whole globe.”