Facebook will buy renewable energy from northeast Nebraska wind development, breathing new life into dormant project

Source: By Cole Eppley, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Friday, October 20, 2017

Facebook’s sprawling Papillion data center project has breathed new life into a dormant wind development project in northeast Nebraska.

The social media company on Thursday said it would procure renewable energy from the Rattlesnake Creek wind project in Dixon County, just west of South Sioux City and situated between the towns of Allen, Emerson and Wakefield.

The proposed wind development generated a buzz in 2013 when Kansas-based Tradewind Energy made its plans for the development public. But the company mothballed the project when it couldn’t find a buyer in time to take advantage of federal tax credits.

Beginning construction on the then-$300 million project without a buyer would have been too big a risk, Tradewind officials said at the time.

How the times have changed.

The re-energized Rattlesnake Creek project at 320 megawatts is significantly larger than the original iteration of 200 megawatts.

When built, it will be the second-largest wind farm in Nebraska behind the 400-megawatt Grande Prairie project in Holt County, which was the largest wind development built anywhere in the U.S. in 2016.

Construction is expected to start by the end of this year and the project will be generating electricity in fourth-quarter 2018, said Bruce Barton, vice president of development for Tradewind. That will cap a decadelong endeavor to bring Rattlesnake Creek to fruition.

Both projects are examples of Nebraska’s rich wind resource being realized, said David Bracht, director of the Nebraska Energy Office.

“The wind projects that have been installed (in Nebraska) have shown themselves to be very, very productive,” said Bracht, who oversees the state agency with responsibilities including the collection and analysis of energy statistics and information.

In fact, Nebraska wind farms in 2016 boasted an average capacity factor of 45 percent — higher than in any other state, according to the American Wind Energy Association. In other words, Nebraska wind farms generated electricity at 45 percent of their hypothetical maximum potential rate.

The average capacity factor for the U.S. wind fleet in 2016 was 35 percent.

Along with declining costs to build wind energy projects — wind is now closely competitive with cheap conventional generators like coal and natural gas, even without subsidies, according to investment banking firm Lazard — Bracht said more productive developments in Nebraska are clearly capturing the attention of companies keen on powering their operations with more renewable energy.

“This wind project would not be built without Facebook’s commitment and the energy requirements of our data center,” Facebook’s announcement said.

Facebook will purchase 200 megawatts of the Rattlesnake Creek’s output and the remaining 120 megawatts will be sold to other buyers.

And a new electric rate structure rolled out in January by the Omaha Public Power District means Facebook can power its massive Sarpy County project with 100 percent clean energy. In turn, Facebook aims to get at least 50 percent of its total electricity consumption from clean and renewable energy sources in 2018.

Building permits filed with the county indicate the tech company’s Papillion data center is valued at $307 million so far. That sum will grow significantly when Sarpy issues a permit for a second 450,000-square-foot building to be built at Nebraska Highway 50 and Capehart Road.