Wind energy could mean jobs in the Nebraska’s Panhandle

Source: By BRANDON NELSON Staff Reporter, Scottsbluff Star Herald • Posted: Friday, February 1, 2013

The Nebraska breeze could blow in about $690 million in annual income and 14,000 new jobs in the next 17 years.

According to John Crabtree, media director at the Center for Rural Affairs, choosing to invest in energy diversification and wind energy development would bring real economic opportunities to rural Nebraska.

“If we do this, for once we would be supporting a development that wasn’t focused on Lincoln and Omaha,” he said. “This wouldn’t be happening in urban centers, it would be out here.”

As part of a statewide media tour, Crabtree has been traversing Nebraska, carrying with him the message of the profitable potential in wind energy and the Nebraska Public Power District’s role in realizing that potential.

“CFRA has been working for years to promote wind energy development. There are hugely compelling economic reasons to do it and we’re trying to spark conversations in the Panhandle,” he said.

Crabtree pointed to the benefits that would come about if more than half of Nebraska’s electrical needs were provided by productive investments in wind energy and energy-efficient technology. He said the investments could bring more than 1,200 jobs to the Panhandle alone and would create hundreds of jobs in western Nebraska communities.

“The state hasn’t put forth any development strategies that work out here,” he added. “This is an opportunity to create a lot of jobs in a place where we have failed to do so in the past.”

During the tour, Crabtree was pulling his information from “Securing Nebraska’s Energy and Economic Future: Creating Jobs, New Economic Opportunities and Health Benefits through Productive Investments in Wind Energy and Energy Efficiency,” a report prepared for the Sierra Club last year.

Nebraska ranks fourth best in the nation for wind resources, but only comes in at 16th for wind electricity per capita, the report notes. Moreover, it lists Nebraska among the least energy-efficient states in the country and the eighth-highest energy consumer per capita.

The state’s wind could fulfill its current electricity needs 120 times over and if harnessed correctly, it could provide more than half of Nebraska’s electricity needs by 2030, Crabtree said.

Nebraska still has a long way to go, he said, noting that the state only generates 337 mega-watts of wind energy — about 4 percent of the state’s total generation capacity. The number pales in comparison to neighboring states, such as Iowa and Colorado.

“Iowa is generating 4,000 mega-watts. That is 10 times what we have here,” he said. “The resource is here, but we need to invest in it.”

Cost should also factor into determining wind’s relevance in Nebraska’s energy future. Crabtree said the price of coal is going up and wind is becoming increasingly competitive.

“With the advances being made, it will be cheaper than coal. We know that is true,” he said.

In addition to being cheaper, the report says wind energy investments could draw in net annual benefits including $24 million in electricity bill savings, $63 billion in income, $1.4 million in local tax revenues and based on lowered air levels, $650 million in avoided health care costs.

In spite of the benefits, Crabtree said NPPD has been slow in backing wind energy resources. While trying to drum up discussion, he said the Center for Rural Affairs is encouraging citizens to speak with their elected NPPD board member about the need for wind energy development.

“NPPD can provide leadership and make wind part of our energy future,” he said. “If they would do that, I think the people will get behind them.”

The need for dialogue comes at a crucial time as NPPD will soon need to make efficiency upgrades at the Gerald Gentleman Station, their largest coal-fired generating plant. The project could cost upwards of $1 billion, Crabtree said, and other energy options could stand to benefit from those funds.

“We are going to build turbines in this country. No one is questioning that because there is a market for it,” he said. “If we put all their eggs in the coal basket, we are going to wake up 20 years from now and realize we missed the boat.”

Nebraska will either be in the game or on the sidelines, Crabtree said. People have to decide if they want to pursue the wind energy option.

“We don’t have investor-owned utility companies. We have public power and its officials are elected by you and me,” he said. “It’s a blessing because we can expect them to take responsibility.”