Butler County, meet wind energy.
It’s fair to say the County Board of Supervisors encountered some major gusts of information during an hour of the board’s meeting late Monday morning.
NEXTera Energy Resources’ director of development, Lisa Sullivan, took the board through a whirlwind presentation of the Jubilee Project, a proposed wind turbine farm that would occupy a 33,000 acre area, potentially stretching from the Bruno and Brainard areas east into Saunders County. About two-thirds of the area is in Butler County.
“We are a clean energy company,” Sullivan said. “We are looking to build this project in Butler and Saunders counties. It’s in the very early stages. If we build it, it will be in 2017,” she said.
NEXTera, headquartered in Juno Beach, Fla. is the nation’s largest builder of wind farms in the nation, with projects sited in 19 states. The company also has solar, hydroelectric and nuclear power plants.
The project would involve constructing 100 to 112 wind turbines to generate up to 200 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 40,000 homes.
While the acreage sounds extensive, she said, the project would require an acre and a half per turbine, and easements would be necessary to run underground transmission lines to the electric grid of the Nebraska Public Power District. She explained that the project will be subject to rigorous studies to determine its impact on the environment and wildlife. The company will be contacting not only the landowners but seeking out all utility owners in the area to minimize conflicts.
Supervisor Greg Janak, whose district includes much of the area included in the proposal, said he asked Sullivan to attend the meeting. Janak had introduced the topic to a group of Brainard-area landowners at a meeting Feb. 24 at East Butler High School.
Monday’s discussion centered on how NEXTera would approach relationships with landowners, how the turbines would be sited and the impact of the wind farm on the county.
Unlike its competitors, Sullivan said, NEXTera builds and holds on to its wind facilities. Elsewhere in Nebraska, the company established the 44-turbine Steele Flats project in Jefferson and Gage counties, and it currently is working to establish the Cottonwood Project, a farm of 89 or more towers in northern Webster County.
NEXTera has its own standards for setbacks, or the distances that its towers and facilities are placed away from other structures or properties. For example, the towers must be sited 1,400 feet from any occupied dwellings. Other standards govern the potential toppling of towers. Distances to other objects are generally 1.1 times the “tip height,” distance from the ground to the top of the turbine blades.
The life expectancy of the wind farm is 30 years, with most expected to last longer. The company continually maintains its equipment and replaces dated technology with new equipment, she said.
In response to County Board questions, Sullivan said that when it comes time to decommission the turbines, NEXTera covers the cost.
Sullivan explained that the company would work with the county’s highway department and improve the county roads to condition necessary to get the large towers and turbine blades to each site. After construction, the county could keep the widened roads or have the company return them to earlier condition.
“We make sure we remediate after construction,” Sullivan said.
Several residents of the Brainard and Loma areas had questions for Sullivan, who explained that invitations will be going out to landowners for a March 18 meeting in Brainard. NEXTera will make experts available for all of the landowners’ questions relating to various factors of the project.
In regard to negotiations with landowners, Sullivan was clear that all landowners receive the same terms from the company at all of its wind farm locations. Offering some landowners better terms than others would create problems, she said. Regarding individual turbine sites, the company tries to adjust the locations as much as it can to suit the landowner’s wishes.
John Stanner, who lives at 3049 W Road, encouraged the County Board to conduct public hearings on the project. Stanner said he had researched wind turbine failures, including the instance of blade parts coming lose and landing on nearby property. Setbacks should be designed upon more scientific study, he said.
Sullivan noted that the company has insurance to cover blade failures, and she expressed confidence in the company’s maintenance of 100 wind farms and 9,000 wind turbines.
“If they are not spinning and operating correctly, we are not making money,” she said.
County authority limited
Supervisors said the county’s main consideration would be the construction’s impact on county roads.
Responding to the request for hearings, Supervisor Max Birkel recalled that no hearings were held for Nebraska Public Power District’s 345-kilovolt power lines built across the county, or for the TransCanada oil pipeline. Those development terms were negotiated between the builders and the private landowners.
“This board has no governing over (the wind farm) anyway, because we have no zoning,” Birkel said.
Supervisors asked Sullivan if she could share a map of the project area, and she said she couldn’t, explaining that if competitors “get wind” of the project, “they may try to come in and sign up landowners from beneath us.”
Sullivan said she was meeting with Saunders County’s Planning and Zoning director on Monday afternoon. She assured the County Board the company wants to treat the county right.
“We are in this for the long term. We are in this to build relationships. We are not trying to do anything underhanded,” she said. “It will be a permanent part of the landscape. It affects a lot of things.”
Sullivan explained that developing wind energy is not without challenges or costs, but the project carries many positives, including an estimated $150 million in revenue for local governments and $16 million in payments to landowners.
The construction period will last six to nine months, with an estimated 150 to 175 workers moving in to the area for the period and contributing to the economy. After construction, the project will require five employees, who Sullivan conceded may not live in the immediate area.
“The operator in Steele Flats is an hour away,” she said.
Bruce Bostelman, one of the organizers of the landowners meeting, pointed out that Nebraska currently is using all of the power that is available on the NPPD grid. He said that NPPD is going to have to build more power lines and substations to accommodate wind energy, and the NPPD ratepayers would foot the bill,.
Sullivan said that the company has to find buyers for the power to be created before the turbines can be used. She cited the development of data centers for Microsoft and Google, which are located in rural areas. “They are huge energy users,” she said.
Janak said that the energy grid requires updating for other developments such as ethanol plants. Sullivan added that tapping the wind is “free” and doesn’t have other costs such as the pollutants involved in coal.
What about eminent domain, asked Tom Pesek of Brainard. While NPPD has eminent domain over the company, NEXTera does not have the power to enforce eminent domain for its project, Sullivan said.
Brainard Village Board Chairman Elaine Fortik asked how the project area was chosen. Sullivan said the Federal Aviation Administration has 30 years of records for high wind areas. The area also has the potential for capacity and transmission of power that goes with being in Eastern Nebraska.
As for the uniform terms, “We don’t want to get into a bidding war. Everyone gets the same terms. If we don’t get enough land, either we look to see if we shift the project. If we really can’t get enough to sign up, we close shop and we move somewhere else.”
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