- National Wind Watch: Wind Energy News - https://www.wind-watch.org/news -

Sierra Club, utilities spar over Nebraska wind power

The Sierra Club in Nebraska criticized the state’s public power utilities for failing to get more wind power online to compete with Iowa, which landed a planned data center for Facebook Inc. in Altoona and increased incentives for Google Inc. that allow it to expand in Council Bluffs.

Available wind power was reported among the factors that led to Facebook’s decision.

The Iowa Economic Development Authority board also approved $18 million in tax credits for the Facebook project in the Des Moines suburb. It is expected to create 31 permanent jobs and hundreds of temporary construction jobs. Kearney, Neb., had sought the project.

Facebook hopes to draw 25 percent of data center power from renewable sources by 2015. MidAmerican Energy, which gets a quarter of its energy from wind, will supply power for Facebook and supplies Council Bluffs. MidAmerican is owned by Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett’s company, based in Omaha.

“This missed opportunity for economic development in Nebraska should be a wake-up call for our public power districts,” Ken Winston of the Sierra Club in Nebraska said in a news release. “Cutting-edge companies like Facebook and Google have made an admirable commitment to choosing data center sites with strong renewable energy options. Nebraska’s current energy mix couldn’t help these companies reach their renewable goals.

“Instead, Nebraska’s public power districts are clinging to the past, operating old coal-fired power plants across the state rather than making smart investments in our abundant wind resources.”

Nebraska ranks fourth for wind potential in the United States, ahead of Iowa, which ranks seventh.

Coincidentally, the Nebraska Legislature was debating the creation of state wind-energy tax incentives Wednesday.

Shelley Sahling-Zart, vice president and general counsel for the Lincoln Electric System, said Nebraska utilities were doing what they could – given their public status and risk tolerance and given the tax benefits legally available. As public entities, power districts aren’t eligible for federal wind-power production tax credits. They must ask for proposals by private businesses to build wind power, then buy the output.

The Omaha Public Power District, Nebraska Public Power District and LES all are issuing requests for proposals and buying output, she said.

LES has 30 megawatts of wind power and just issued a request for proposals to provide up to 50 more megawatts, she said.

“If you look into the details, it’s usually because they (competitors) have more incentives,” Sahling-Zalt said, incentives that are created or denied by the Legislature.

NPPD Chief Executive Officer Patrick Pope said, “When we look at companies, particularly internationial companies, already based in Nebraska, NPPD has already developed a mechanism to allow those companies to access whatever level of renewable energy they would like. I can’t give you the name of the company. It’s a large international manufacturer. They did see a need to have a significant amount of power come from renewables, their customers expect that and we were successful in meeting that.”

For Winston to say Facebook went to Iowa because of its wind power is “blatantly false,” Pope said.

A Facebook spokesman confirmed in email to Midwest Energy News that access to wind power was a factor in its decision to locate in Iowa.

But John Boyd Jr., a New Jersey consultant who helps companies site data centers, told Midwest Energy News the demand for wind power was driven by marketing. “There’s public relations value above and beyond the economic value of wind energy,” Boyd said.

He acknowledged he doesn’t think wind power is the leading criteria for siting decisions. More important factors, he said, are tax incentives, real estate costs and the price of the electricity.

Altoona will provide a 20-year property tax exemption to Facebook, but the jobs must pay at least $23.12 per hour.

In Council Bluffs, Google plans to build a data center alongside an existing $600 million center. It’s increased the cost of the new data center to $700 million from the original $300 million, and the state increased tax credits from less than $10 million to $16.8 million.

Data centers typically are extremely large buildings that house computer servers designed to store massive amounts of data. They typically create few jobs. The Google facility employs 35.