Steele Flats latest wind farm to sprout in Nebraska, but future growth uncertain

Source: By Cole Epley / World-Herald staff writer • Posted: Thursday, June 19, 2014

  • Wind energy is the latest crop on Bets and Melvin Beran’s farm between Odell and Diller in southeast Nebraska. Today, officials including Gov. Dave Heineman will participate in a ribbon cutting at the Steele Flats wind farm. The installation will produce 75 megawatts of power, of which 40 percent will be sold to Becton Dickinson Co.

DILLER, Neb. — Between here and Odell, the 262-foot-tall turbines that tower over pastures and wheat, corn and bean fields surround the home of Bets and Melvin Beran, who have lived in the area for 58 years.

The Berans were deliberate in deciding to allow NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based energy company, to erect wind turbines on their land. They even stopped in Taft, Texas, while on vacation with family to get perspective from landowners there who had the structures on their property.

The family gave the go-ahead and watched as construction crews built the wind farm in a matter of months last year. They and other landowners with turbines are being compensated by NextEra Energy, which cuts a check every three months and adds royalties based on how much electricity the turbines produce.

Bets Beran, 80, said it will be their children and grandchildren who really benefit from the payments — “You can’t take it with you” — but the Steele Flats wind farm also is helping Nebraska take a leap in its wind energy capacity.

And a plan for Steele Flats to provide 40 percent of its power for a single industrial customer, Becton Dickinson and Co., could signal the potential for a new type of demand for wind energy.

The $138 million Steele Flats project in Johnson and Gage Counties began generating electricity in November, and a larger, 118-turbine Prairie Breeze Wind Energy Center in Antelope County began generating electricity in May. The $390 million Prairie Breeze Wind Energy Center was built by Chicago-based Invenergy LLC, and its electricity will be distributed by Omaha Public Power District.

Together, the two farms boosted the state’s installed wind capacity by 50 percent.

The Steele Flats wind farm today is scheduled to draw a host of local and state elected officials, including Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, for a ribbon-cutting.

Federal tax credits for wind energy expired at the end of 2013, but projects that began construction before Dec. 31, 2013, still qualify.

The second phase of an installation at Broken Bow is expected to be on line in October, adding 75 megawatts of wind power. And the $700 million, 400-megawatt Grande Prairie Wind Farm in Holt County near O’Neill will be feeding power into the Omaha Public Power District grid in 2016.

The outlook for new wind projects is uncertain, though.

Nebraska Public Power District is within 22 megawatts of its renewable output goal, and Prairie Breeze took OPPD’s total renewable output to about 13.5 percent. When the Grande Prairie Wind Farm comes on line in 2016, OPPD’s renewable output will be at 30 percent. It had a goal of achieving 10 percent by 2020.

“I don’t believe either we or anyone else will move forward (with new projects) immediately without those (federal) credits,” said Dean Mueller, division manager of sustainable energy and environmental stewardship at OPPD.

Already, at least one developer has shelved a project in Nebraska because it can’t find a buyer.

Lenexa, Kansas-based TradeWind Energy has spent millions on a project called Rattlesnake Creek. The project, which called for 200 megawatts of generation in Dixon County, is on hold until TradeWind finds a buyer for energy generated at the site.

But efforts to help industries be “greener” could herald a resurgence in demand for wind energy.

Becton Dickinson, which operates medical equipment manufacturing facilities in Broken Bow, Columbus and Holdrege, will buy 30 megawatts of renewable energy credits through the Steele Flats 75-megawatt project. Before reaching a 20-year agreement with NPPD, the company was purchasing credits on the open market on a two-year basis.

Gregory Butler, director of global supply chain stewardship at Becton Dickinson, said the company anticipates benefiting both by lessening its environmental impact as well as by hedging against increases in fossil fuel prices or possible taxes on carbon emissions.

NPPD is in talks to sell an additional 50 megawatts’ worth of credits to another large customer, and others have also come to the table.

“NPPD most likely wouldn’t be looking at any wind additions right now but, instead, we’re looking to see if we can put some new (renewable energy credit) deals together,” said Dave Rich, sustainable energy manager at NPPD.

New requirements issued June 2 by the Environmental Protection Agency aim to curb carbon emissions from existing power plants. Wind developments can help offset those emissions, and Nebraska is one of 11 states where wind has already offset carbon pollution by more than 10 percent, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

A resolution adopted by the NPPD board of directors aims to help industrial customers offset their carbon footprint by purchasing renewable energy credits that allow customers to lock in rates for a certain amount of time.

Asked whether an influx of high-consumption customers could change NPPD’s appetite for wind energy, Rich responded, “Definitely, yes.”

Near Diller, Bets Beran can’t help but notice the impact of wind power in her own backyard.

Melvin Beran said you can hear the blades moving through the air, but only if the wind is just right. Up close, the turbines emit a faint electric whine punctuated by the rhythmic interruption of blades slicing through the air. The blades sound like a high-flying jet.

But Bets Beran, who has named each of the turbines on the couple’s property, said it doesn’t bother her. “I tell people my flag makes more noise than the turbines do.”