KEARNEY – An aerial view may be the only way to get a true picture of the 80-megawatt wind energy project that will be built east of Broken Bow over the next two years.
Rather than locate dozens of large white three-bladed turbines in the same area like an oversized flower garden, contractors will plant one here and one there on the tops of some of Nebraska’s windiest hills. In an early summer, they may look like irregular white stitches across a green quilt of pastures.
“They’re likely to be pretty well spread out … The terrain out there really dictates that,” said Tom Swierczewski of Chicago, senior project developer for Midwest Wind Energy.
His company and Edison Mission Group, also of Chicago, are a team for their third Nebraska project.
At the Elkhorn Ridge Wind Farm near Bloomfield, there are 27 3-megawatt turbines for a capacity of 81 megawatts. Commercial operations began March 1, 2009.
The Laredo Ridge Wind Farm near Petersburg soon will have 54 1.5-megawatt turbines commissioned for another 81 megawatts of wind energy.
The third player in those wind farms and the estimated $160 million Broken Bow project is Nebraska Public Power District. It has 20-year power purchase agreements for the electricity generated.
Swierczewski explained that Midwest Wind Energy is a development company that finds wind farm sites; works with landowners on plans, leases and easements; and deals with any zoning issues.
The company now is majority owner of the Broken Bow project and Edison Mission is the minority owner, handling tax, administration and accounting issues.
“The first day of construction is our last day on the job,” Swierczewski said.
Edison Mission Group will buy Midwest Wind Energy’s shares and own the project. EMG officials will oversee construction. A subsidiary, Broken Bow Wind LLC, will be the project operator and enter into all contracts, from turbine purchases to landowner leases.
Swierczewski said it probably will take another couple of months to determine the layout for the project. Considerations include not only turbine locations, but access roads for cranes and trucks. “It has to be buildable,” he said, not just a good wind site.
Scattered turbines typically are connected by an underground cable network and several can be on a single circuit. Swierczewski said that means one circuit can be commissioned at a time, rather than having to wait for all the turbines to be operational.
There is a “hard date” of Dec. 31, 2012, for project completion. That’s the deadline for developers to qualify for production tax credits.
Although a 1.6 megawatt General Electric turbine is the primary candidate for use in the Broken Bow project – 50 would be required for 80 megawatts – Swierczewski said it could be months before a final model decision is made.
He expects construction of access roads and a wind power collection substation to begin by June or July.
The standard design for a turbine site includes an 18-foot-diameter footprint for the tower foundation and a 100-foot-diameter exclusive use area, Swierczewski said.
Developers know they literally are exploring new ground in Custer County. “We haven’t really done a project that was primarily pasture before,” Swierczewski said.
He will “ask early and often” for landowner input about the best routes for the 16-foot-wide gravel access roads to turbine sites. “Nobody knows that better than the landowner,” Swierczewski said.
He’s working with about 30 Custer County families who could have land included in the project. “We certainly parallel track these efforts,” Swierczewski said. “The development side of things … and we’re negotiating a lease with the landowners group.”
He said there are several ways to compute lease payments, including per megawatt, per turbine or some other kind of annual rent.
Lisa Rice, a Broken Bow Landowners Group leader, said the group wasn’t formed to promote their area for wind energy development. Landowners got organized after initially being approached by NPPD about the potential for easements.
“We decided to educate ourselves … Find out what it is like to have a turbine on our property. Talk to people with turbines. Stand under turbines ourselves,” Rice said.
It’s been a challenge to educate the 35 to 40 landowners, she said, especially on what to know about 20- to 40-year contracts that will extend into the next generation of farmers and ranchers.
“I think we’ve worked well together so far,” Rice said.
She described the area being studied as running from south of Highway 2 east of Broken Bow up toward Sargent. Sites are being evaluated for access, environmental issues and wind data.
It became clear to the landowners that they would need legal help to protect their interests. Rice said they hired Grand Island native John Snow of Denver who has expertise in wind energy contracts.
The landowners also know that their properties are different than what the developers worked with for the Bloomfield and Petersburg projects.
“Here, you have pasture ground,” Rice said, with cattle grazing. That raises questions about how to fence off a turbine site without limiting access to water. Or how to build roads that work for the landowner and the neighbors.
“It’s a different perspective,” she said.
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