The Gage County Planning and Zoning Commission approved a special use permit for a wind energy project by NextEra Energy Resources 6-0 following a public hearing Thursday.
The recommendation will next go before the Gage County Board of Supervisors for final approval.
NextEra hopes the 44-turbine Steele Flats Wind Project will see a completion date before the end of the years, with 32 turbines in Jefferson County and 12 in Gage County.
The 426-foot tall Steele Flats turbines, manufactured by General Electric, are the “workhorses” of the industry, capable of generating 1.7 megawatts of electricity each on days like Tuesday, when the wind sweeps across the area.
During construction, NextEra estimates 150 construction workers will be on site and the wind farm will employ five full-time technicians to maintain the facility after completion, potentially based out of an office in either Odell or Diller.
Project Developer Paul Dockery of NextEra said the Nebraska Public Power District showed interest as a consumer as part of its goal to providing 10 percent of its electricity through renewable energy sources.
Over the 30-year life of the turbines, approximately $11 million in nameplate capacity tax and property taxes will be generated for Gage County. Dockery later said the county could expect an additional $71,000 in tax revenue annually.
To select the array, Dockery said NextEra gave consideration to the county’s setback regulations from each turbine and participating resident’s home, as well as a quarter mile from non-participating residents.
Kevin Sasse, who lives near Diller and would have two wind turbines built on his property, was one of two people who spoke in favor of the project.
“I was excited about this project before I was even included in it,” Sasse said.
Four people spoke against granting NextEra the special use permit during Thursday’s public hearing.
Kathy Pretzer, who lives south of Beatrice near Highway 77, cited several concerns related to cell phone interference, 911 system interference and the voltage carried by lines to the Steele City transmission center.
“They mentioned that they planned the towers to avoid the emergency communication and not disrupt our satellite communication, I am wondering if the setbacks are large enough to protect all of our population,” Pretzer said. “Even minimal interference in our 911 system seems unacceptable to me.”
Dockery said that cell phones and emergency lines would not be affected by the wind farm.
“I’ve been driving around a wind farm on a conference call and not had any problems,” he said.
And the power lines carrying electricity from the generators to the Steele City substation would be no different than other electric lines in the area.
Homestead National Monument of America Superintendent Mark Engler criticized the location of the project, saying it threatened the horizons of the national park.
“In reflecting on the past 150 years, nothing changed the landscape like the homesteading movement did,” Engler said. “In years to come, I believe few events have the potential to impact or change the landscape like wind energy development will.”
The monument secured “horizon setbacks” in the 1960s, Engler explained, and in 1988 determined the Homestead would need an additional 4,400 acres to protect its “view shed.”
Dockery assured Engler that any turbine built in the Steele Flats project would be below the Homestead’s horizon line and agreed to provide a report to the superintendent.
Kevin McIntyre worried about the sound put off by the turbines affecting a cabin 1,900 feet away.
“They told me it wouldn’t be any louder than a refrigerator but I don’t have a refrigerator in my bedroom,” McIntyre said.
Dockery said the turbine McIntyre referred to was planned according to the regulations set forth by Gage County.
Following the public hearing, Commissioner David Zimmerman made a motion to table the discussion of the permit to its following meeting, but did not receive a second.
Commissioner Jeff Frerichs then moved to accept the special use permit with consideration given to the Homestead National Monument’s “view shed.”
Zimmerman asked how approving the project would affect future applications for a special use permit, while Frerichs said the commission could only consider the permit in question.
The motion passed 6-0, with Zimmerman abstaining.
The county board will consider the recommendation at its April 3 meeting.