It’s all about community support.
A proposed 100-megawatt, 48-turbine wind farm in northwest Holt County wouldn’t stand a chance of success without it, said Mike Donahue, executive vice president of Midwest Wind Energy of Chicago.
“We’re here for several reasons,” Donahue said last week while making a visit to O’Neill. “Of course, there is the wind resource. Nebraska ranks sixth in the nation in wind power potential. But there’s more to it than that. There is land available, there is wind data available, we have close proximity to transmission lines, and the project is environmentally compatible with the site.
“But most importantly, we believe there is a substantial amount of local support for the project, and that is our top selection criterion.”
Donahue met with about 70 area residents to discuss the proposal.
“Wind power can be controversial,” he said. “Some areas just don’t want it.”
Holt County apparently does want it.
A group of citizens has established a committee to pursue the proposed project. Holt County Residents for Wind Turbine Development is led by Atkinson attorney Jan Krotter Chvala. Committee members include business owners, bankers, economic development specialists and ranchers.
Midwest Wind Energy develops wind power projects throughout the Midwest. Its project development portfolio contains nearly 1,000 megawatts of production. The company plans to develop more than 1,500 megawatts by 2010.
Donahue stressed that his company is no flash in the pan. With the backing of Edison Mission Midwest, a subsidiary of Edison International – a California-based electric power generator and distributor – it has the financial wherewithal to make the project happen.
The project will cost about $160 million. Each wind turbine carries a price tag of $3 million.
About $24 million will be invested locally, including materials and services. An estimated $6.5 million in property taxes will be generated annually.
The construction phase will employ 120 local people for a year. After completion, there will be eight full-time jobs filled at an average salary of $60,000 per year.
“We will try to draw all employees from the local community,” Donahue said. “The wind turbine manufacturer will provide initial staff to debug any early problems, but eventually it will all be turned over to locals.”
Under a joint development agreement, Edison will eventually own and operate the proposed project, but Midwest Wind Energy will retain a minority interest throughout the life of the project.
The project hinges on the company’s ability to negotiate a mutually acceptable power purchase agreement with the Nebraska Public Power District.
“This project achieves NPPD’s goals to build more renewable energy projects,” Donahue said. “We have the capital and expertise to help, with no risk to ratepayers. We’re not in competition with public power. We can help them maintain their status and integrity.”
Dave Rich, NPPD’s renewable energy manager from Columbus, was on hand at last week’s meeting in O’Neill to answer questions and provide the district’s viewpoint.
“We are supportive of wind development, but we want to do it without increases to rates,” he said.
About 60 percent of Nebraska’s power comes from Wyoming coal, supplementing that in the summer peak demand period with natural gas.
“We don’t know what the federal government is going to do with global warming standards. They may mandate a percentage of electricity generation from renewable resources. The EPA may regulate carbon dioxide – coal emissions. If laws are passed that tax coal plants, there will be more benefits to wind generation. In the short term, this may cause rate increases, but in the long term, it may be cheaper.”
Negotiations continue between Midwest Energy and NPPD.
“Things are very positive,” Donahue said. “We are hopeful we can negotiate an agreement that will provide them with the reasonable rates that they are looking for.”
The project seems to represent a shift in thinking for municipalities accustomed to asking companies what it will take to convince them to invest locally.
“In Atkinson, they asked what the company wanted from the local government,” Donahue said. “They were surprised to find that we generally offer services to the government instead of asking for incentives. We build and/or upgrade the roads we need for the project. We repair any construction-related road damage. We have a decommission guarantee that when the project ends, we will pay for removing the turbines so that nobody will ever be left with any rusting towers. This protects the public from being left holding the bag. There is no public risk at all.”
Donahue said the company takes pride in being community-oriented.
“We support community events and the schools. We actively participate in the life of the community,” he said.
By Sandy Benson
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