KEARNEY – When Tom Swierczewski goes “prospecting” for wind farm sites, wind quality isn’t the first consideration on his checklist.
High-quality wind throughout the Midwest means developers can choose from hundreds, maybe thousands, of locations just in Nebraska. “Economically, you could probably do a project just about anywhere,” Swierczewski said at last week’s Nebraska Wind Conference in Kearney.
Key factors for his company, Chicago-based Midwest Wind Energy, are a site’s proximity to a transmission line and securing a power purchase agreement with an electricity buyer.
Swierczewski said wind farms aren’t built today unless an agreement is completed or nearly done. Negotiations, involving developers, public and private energy companies, consultants and attorneys, can take at least a year, he added.
Landowner interest is the third critical issue. Swierczewski said an early step in the siting process is to get a plat map of an area of interest and meet with the largest landowners.
“If they have serious objections to a wind project … it doesn’t mean we won’t stand and fight for a project,” he said, but with so many alternative sites in Nebraska, a developer likely will look elsewhere.
Environmental concerns often are costly and take a long time to address, so those issues also must be identified early in the prospecting process. “They are definitely a project killer. It’s not necessarily, ‘Can you get it approved?’ but how long will it take to get it approved,” Swierczewski said.
“If you have a site that has three of the four (priority elements), it likely will remain a prospecting site forever,” he said, because there are other four-out-of-four sites available.
Swierczewski described other parts of the development process.
He said a developer must have at least $250,000 in hand for easements and then $1 million to $1.5 million to proceed with an 80-megawatt wind farm. That’s the size of the first phase of a project that will be built by Midwest Wind Energy next year near Broken Bow for which Swierczewski is project manager.
He said all the risk falls on the developer until a power purchase agreement is signed and the project is under construction.
The first step to move ahead is to identify a land area for information gathering.
Swierczewski said wind data towers often are used and new sonar equipment was part of the process for Midwest Wind Energy’s studies in Custer County. “You need at least a year of wind data for a project to be financeable,” he added.
The next step is to work with landowners to create a turbine layout plan that meets all setback requirements for homes, utilities, highways and railroads. Swierczewski said it may take leases on 10,000 acres to get the 1,000 acres or less actually required for a project.
Midwest Wind Energy works only with landowner groups, not individuals, on 20- to 25-year leases. The only exceptions to the “nobody gets a special deal” policy have involved rare situations where farmers had to significantly change pivot systems.
Avoiding conflicts with pivot irrigation systems is a key issue for every site. “Pivot irrigators and wind farms have kind of an uneasy relationship,” Swierczewski said, adding that if he’s looking at a new wind farm site and half or more of the land has pivot systems, the site probably won’t be developed.
Developers work with landowners to identify odd-shaped parts of fields and other features that work well for turbines without causing farming, ranching or access conflicts. Swierczewski said two important site-specific issues for the rangeland northeast of Broken Bow were erosion and fencing.
Construction costs are estimated for each turbine.
It takes three to six months to develop a final plan that can be submitted to permitting agencies, Swierczewski said. Obtaining local zoning, state and federal permits can take at least a year, and any required changes still can be made to the plan.
Also part of the process is calculating estimated energy production from the site.
Jerry Hudgins, chairman of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Electrical Engineering Department, said the “perfect turbine” will extract 59 percent of the winds energy. He said the efficiency is better with bigger blades and higher towers.
Swierczewski said today’s better turbines are allowing wind farms to achieve net capacity factors in the high 40s, with some at 50 percent or better. He explained that each turbine in a wind farm is rated so it can be shifted around for better efficiency.
Actual wind farm construction can start only when the turbine layout, easements, power purchase agreement, energy production estimate, permits and other agreements all are completed.