The Gage County Board of Supervisors approved a decommissioning agreement with NextEra Energy Resources for the Steele Flats wind farm Wednesday.
The decommissioning agreement outlines what steps will be taken in the event that the wind turbines are not used for power generation in the future, typically transforming the land back to its original use and returning the lease to the landowner.
According to Steele Flats project manager Paul Dockery, the wind farm has an expected life of 30 years.
County Attorney Roger Harris said the decommissioning of the turbines is an important aspect of the planning and zoning of wind farms, citing wind farms in California that have been left standing inoperable because no decommissioning plan was in place.
Supervisor John Hill, the board’s most outspoken member on the need to plan for decommissioning of the project’s turbines, suggested creating an escrow account to help with future decommissioning costs.
Harris said while creating such a fund would be “a great idea,” it wasn’t practical for the county to achieve.
“The problem is we don’t have a real tough negotiating stance and these people typically don’t have a lot of money to put aside for an escrow arrangement or some type of performance bond,” Harris said.
Participating landowners in the project, Harris added, are also receiving direct payments from NextEra for leases on the land where turbines are built, potentially leaving them responsible for the turbine after the wind farm is taken off the grid.
Ultimately, Harris said outlining a detailed decommissioning plan could drive away future wind power opportunities for the county. Currently, there are no state or federal guidelines driving decommissioning agreements on a local level.
“Even though we’re a good place to locate those, we’re not the only place,” Harris said. “If there are some economic benefits out there, that’s kind of the pressure that’s out there for all counties.”
Supervisor Kathy Setzer said too much regulation could drive away future economic opportunities.
“I agree with Roger, it’s kind of up to the landowners to protect themselves in that area,” Setzer said. “We can try to over-regulate things to death to where they’ll say they won’t go to Gage County, they’ll go somewhere else, and then the county misses out on all those tax dollars.”
Hill said he was not comfortable approving a decommissioning agreement that had not moved towards the county’s favor since the board approved the wind farm permit in early April.
“My concern is this is agriculture land, it’s not industrial land or anything like that,” Hill said. “There’s every indication to believe this will go back to agriculture land in the future. I don’t think their decommissioning agreement protects that as much as it should.”
Hill pointed out that NextEra Energy Resources did not need a decommissioning agreement to move forward with the project.
The decommissioning agreement passed 4-1 with Hill opposed. Supervisors Terry Jurgens and Myron Dorn were absent.
Construction on the 12 wind turbines in Gage County and 32 turbines in Jefferson County is expected to commence this summer and be completed by the end of the year.
The 426-foot tall Steele Flats turbines manufactured by General Electric are capable of generating 1.7 megawatts of electricity each on ideal days for wind generation.
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.
In other business:
–The board unanimously approved an emergency dispatch services interlocal agreement with the City of Beatrice. The agreement calls for a $30,000 increase on the county’s part each year for three years, totaling in a $90,000 increase by 2016.
–Supervisors unanimously approved an agreement with the Beatrice Area Chamber of Commerce to continue the Gage County Tourism program.
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