Wind energy’s expansion in Nebraska creates sharp new divide

Source: By GRANT SCHULTE, Associated Press • Posted: Tuesday, October 10, 2017

LINCOLN, Neb. — Many of Nebraska’s neighbors are national leaders in wind energy, and advocates say the state could easily join them.

But as wind energy has grown in Nebraska, so has a fervent resistance from mostly rural landowners and lawmakers who view the turbines as noisy, heavily subsidized eyesores that lead to lower property values.

The pushback was clear last year, when Lancaster and Gage counties approved noise restrictions that effectively halted several proposed wind farms. At the state level, a Nebraska lawmaker is trying to temporarily stop commercial wind projects in the Sandhills.

 Wind energy advocates say much of the resistance is based on unfounded fears and resistance to change.

“I wouldn’t want to contradict someone’s personal experiences, but I do think some of the concerns are from emotional fears rather than actual reality,” said David Bracht, director of the Nebraska Energy Office.

Nebraska ranks fourth nationally in wind energy potential but 18th in the amount of electricity that it can produce with existing turbines, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

The state had 744 turbines as of last year, compared to 3,976 in Iowa, 2,795 in Kansas, 1,913 in Colorado and 1,005 in coal-friendly Wyoming. South Dakota and Missouri had fewer turbines. Iowa ranks second nationally in the amount of installed wind capacity, behind Texas. Kansas ranks fifth.

Wind energy growth has been sluggish in Nebraska in part because of state regulations. For example, until 2009, wind developers had no legal assurances that Nebraska’s public power districts wouldn’t seize their assets through eminent domain if they produced too much power.

Last year, the Legislature removed additional barriers with a law that streamlines the process for developers to construct wind farms.

“Now that we’ve leveled the playing field, we should see more wind energy in Nebraska,” said Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, who sponsored the 2016 wind measure.

Some farm groups argue that turbines are especially vital given persistently low commodity prices. Landowners who allow turbines on their property collect lease payments, and the turbines generate property tax revenue for local governments.

“We have the opportunity to either take advantage of this enormous economic opportunity and embrace it as other states have, or we can choose to fight it,” said John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union.

The projects also help diversify the rural economy by creating jobs building and maintaining turbines, Hansen said, although opponents counter that much of the work goes to out-of-state employees.

Despite all the concerns about wind power, especially in the Sandhills, Hansen noted that the state’s largest publicly owned wind farm, the Ainsworth Wind Energy Facility, has been operating in that region since 2005.

“We want wind to be a good neighbor,” Hansen said.

Still, intense opposition remains among some landowners, including a coalition in the Sandhills that sees turbines as an intrusion on the rolling, grass-covered sand dunes.

 Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon, whose district encompasses most of the Sandhills, said turbines could ruin their appearance, lower property values and harm regional tourism.

“You’re taking a pristine area, and you’re going to shred it for the sole purposes of wind energy,” said Brewer, who introduced a bill last year to impose a two-year moratorium on wind energy farms in the Sandhills. The bill remains stuck in committee, but Brewer said he’ll push for it again in next year’s session.

Brewer pointed to the experience of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, who told The Associated Press on Friday that the $5 billion wind incentive package he approved in 2002 hasn’t delivered the jobs and tax revenue he had been promised.

“We were far too generous,” Keating said.

Brewer said he supports solar power and wouldn’t actively oppose wind energy in areas with stable, clay-based soil. But he argued that advocates for wind energy have oversold its benefits.

“There are places they can go build them that aren’t going to be on a fragile, unstable surface, where once you destroy it you can’t fix it,” he said.

 Craig Andresen of Wood Lake, in rural Cherry County, said he was worried that placing turbines in the region would harm bats and birds along migratory routes and permanently erode the land. Members of his group, Preserve the Sandhills, have also voiced concerns about the “whoosh” and “thump” sounds the rotating blades make and the flickering shadow they cause when the sun is low.

Preserve the Sandhills successfully fought a proposed 30-turbine, $108 million wind farm last year, although the developer has hinted it may revise and resubmit its plans.

Andresen said he also worries about the impact of trucks hauling turbine blades and other heavy components on the county’s roads and grasslands.

“When you disrupt that amount of ground, there is no way to reclaim it to make it look the way it has been,” Andresen said.

Twyla Gallino of Valentine said she objects to large companies using federal tax incentives to finance projects.

Wind energy supporters said they understand residents’ concerns but argue that many have been refuted.

For example, a federally funded study by a University of California laboratory in 2009 found no conclusive evidence that wind farms affect property values. And Hansen, of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said wind farms are thoroughly reviewed for their potential impact on wildlife.

The cost of wind energy development has also fallen sharply over the last decade as technology improved, making the industry less reliant on subsidies, said Bracht, of the Nebraska Energy Office.

Bracht said a Holt County wind farm that went live last year will pay an estimated 10 percent of the county’s property taxes.

“There has never been a development project that everybody loved, and certainly wind falls into that category for a variety of reasons,” Bracht said. “I just hope people approach it with an open mind and really look at the facts and ask, ‘Are they current?'”