LINCOLN – Two of the nation’s largest wind-energy developers said Tuesday that Nebraska could jump-start the lagging development of wind here with one simple yet controversial step – adopt a renewable energy standard, to require the use of “green” energy.
Developers from Minnesota and Kansas said that would demonstrate Nebraska is serious about developing its under-used wind resources.
Such mandates have been adopted in at least 29 states, including Iowa. Minnesota, for instance, mandates that 25 percent of its power come from renewable sources, such as wind or solar, by 2025. In Kansas, the standard is 20 percent by 2020.
“The best way to show an interest in wind development is by putting a state standard on the books,” said Blake Nixon, president of Geronimo Wind Energy of Edina, Minn., which is considering construction of a 100-megawatt wind farm in Dawson County.
Frank Costanza of Tradewind Energy of Lenexa, Kan., said that after Kansas adopted its mandate in 2009, it was able to recruit a manufacturer, Siemens, to build wind generators in Hutchinson, Kan.
Both Costanza and Nixon said the voluntary goals adopted by the Nebraska Public Power District and Omaha Public Power District – to generate 10 percent of their power with renewables by 2020 – don’t go far enough.
The comments came during a Nebraska Wind Forum organized by Gov. Dave Heineman and two leading state lawmakers, Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood of Norfolk and Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler. The goal was to promote a wind-energy law passed this spring and to consider what else the state might do to attract multimillion-dollar wind farms built by private firms.
The forum comes at a time when some observers say interest in wind development is softening because of falling costs for natural gas, overdevelopment of renewable energy generation in some states and a tough investment climate.
Renewable energy mandates, also called renewable portfolio standards, have been a non-starter in Nebraska, in part because of concerns they could raise electric rates in a state with some of the lowest in the nation.
Tom Richards, director of governmental affairs for OPPD, said such mandates create a “non-competitive situation” in which energy sellers can dictate their price, which could result in higher consumer rates.
Langemeier, chairman of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, said he plans to see if a federal renewable energy standard is adopted as part of a new federal energy bill. But a state standard, he said, “isn’t going to happen any time soon.”
“Nebraska is not big on mandates,” Langemeier said.
Another key state senator on wind issues, Ken Haar of Malcolm, agreed that a state standard was probably not feasible because of opposition by public power.
But Haar said a federal mandate helped spur development of Nebraska’s ethanol industry, and the same would happen with wind if a federal renewable standard was enacted.
“To me, it’s an absolute parallel situation,” the senator said. “The federal mandates created a market for our ethanol. Without it, we wouldn’t have the ethanol industry we have.”
The Cornhusker State has been slow to step up to the plate of wind development, mostly because of barriers related to its status as the nation’s only public power state: All the state’s utilities are consumer-owned.
Nebraska ranks 24th in wind-energy production, despite having the nation’s fourth-best wind resources.
Iowa had a renewable energy standard – but it is not credited with the state’s No. 2 ranking in wind generation.
Iowa’s goal of producing 105 megawatts of power with renewable energy was surpassed years ago. Promotional efforts and effective tax incentives are credited with its current success, according to a spokesman with the Iowa Utilities Board.
Heineman said passage of Legislative Bill 1048 this spring removed many of the obstacles for privately owned wind farms. But he asked about 45 officials at the forum what else the state needs to do.
“How do we take another quantum leap forward?” the governor asked. “That’s where we need your input and advice.”
Kevin Gildea, project director for NextEra Energy Resources, which bills itself as the largest wind power generator in North America, with projects in 27 states and Canada, said his firm wouldn’t have come to such a meeting in Nebraska two years ago.
“They’ve made great strides,” Gildea said. “The new law is a symbol that they’re willing to entertain large wind development.”
But Gildea, like the other developers, said Nebraska still needs to do more. He recommended dropping a requirement that large-scale, private wind farm have 10-year agreements with power customers before they can begin construction.
He said that was “a limiting factor.” Companies like his, Gildea said, have business plans in place before they invest tens of millions of dollars in a wind farm.
Developers Nixon and Costanza said adopting a state standard would start a domino effect – more wind farms would be built, followed by construction of transmission lines to export that wind power to Chicago, Minneapolis and Denver and development of wind turbine manufacturing in the state.
Haar said a lame-duck session of Congress might take up a federal renewable energy goal but said that possibility “seems to get smaller as the months go by.”
The governor has expressed opposition to such mandates in the past.
But he told the forum Tuesday that it was time the United States got serious about reducing its reliance on foreign oil “so our sons and daughters aren’t fighting in the Middle East” to preserve the flow of oil from that region.
Paul Hammel reports for the Omaha World-Herald.
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