BRAINARD – More than 100 people attended a meeting last week organized by landowners in the area of a proposed wind turbine project.
A total of 33,000 acres is sought by NextEra Energy Resources, a company based in Florida. Two-thirds of the project would lie in Butler County, with the remaining one-third of Saunders County. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2017,
Landowners in Butler County organized the informational meeting at East Butler High School March 26. Those attending included State Sen. Jerry Johnson of Wahoo and Butler County Supervisors Greg Janak and Dave Potter. On hand were presenters, Dave Vavra of the Saline Wind County Association and John Hay, University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension educator for the Biosystems Engineering department.
Vavra clicked through a slide show to educate landowners on the relationship between themselves and private wind energy companies.
Meeting organizers reported a number of residents and absentee landowners in Butler County have already signed on with NextEra.
“We’ve heard 20,” Butler County Resident Tom Pesek said.
NextEra has had little contact with Saunders County, Saunders Planning and Zoning Administrator George Borreson said in mid-March.
Real estate records in Saunders County have shown no transfers to NextEra in the past month, however, the company has been in the proposed area for at least two years, meeting organizer John Stanner said.
“We really just found out about it,” he said at the meeting.
Those who have signed on with NextEra are not allowed to talk about it as stipulated in their contracts.
“Dave Vavra came in to talk about landowner’s rights, to make people aware of the project and what it does. It was an informational meeting so people are informed on all sides of the contract. These are things they may want to think about,” meeting organizer Bruce Bostelman said.
“There are five phases of wind development,” Vavra said. “Once you sign it, you are in it and you cannot get out of it.”
He pointed out turbines are first designed on software. For a wind company to designate specific locations for turbines early on in the project is not possible, Vavra said.
He said locations could be adjusted five times before the plan is solid.
In addition, contracts should offer crop damage protection more than once, because the turbines are interconnected just below the ground’s surface, Vavra said. Cable repair is imminent.
Landowners can farm around the turbines, but they need to remember they are still paying capital gains, he added.
Vavra also cited non-obstruction easements, which prevent landowners from improving their property with trees, buildings or even a television antenna, Vavra said.
“It would be another red flag for me,” Vavra said about easement limits.
He is also concerned about NextEra’s contract as opposed to the 25-year life expectancy of a single wind turbine.
Stanner, reported the NextEra contract is 40 years with three, 20-year renewals, boosting the area with renewable energy for 100 years. One of Stanner’s main concerns is transparency.
Bostelman had the same concern.
“Vavra has a good point in the sense it’s a benefit for the community to organize in some fashion and that’s up to the community,” Bostelman said. “It’s up to Butler and Saunders to decide what they want to do.”
To further educate the audience, organizers brought in Randy Saathoff, a livestock farmer, who lives in Steele Flats, the NextEra wind turbine project in Johnson and Gage counties.
There are 44 turbines in Steele Flats. Saathoff, who did not sign a contract, lives a half mile away from the closest one.
Most of what Saathoff said to the audience painted wind turbines in a grim light.
He said the power is shut off without warning, sometimes for three hours, and NextEra maintenance employees do not let property owners know in advance when they will be on their land.
“They drove across the bean field and left trash everywhere. They come and go whenever they want on your property,” he said.
There are five full time NextEra employees overseeing the Steele Flats turbines, Saathoff said.
A lot of turbines are smoking and blackened at the ends, he added.
“They’ll tell you what they want you to hear to get you to sign,” he said.
Saathoff said he had crop damage last June as a direct result of the turbines. He received payment for the damage in mid-March.
Butler County Supervisor Greg Janak said on the day of the landowners meeting, he and two other supervisors traveled to Steele Flats.
Janak said the turbines look nice and clean, and they didn’t appear to disrupt the countryside.
“I think they’re (NextEra) are a very good company, but it’s totally up to the landowners in what they want to do. They’re going to have to live with it,” Janak said.
He said he was impressed by the amount of participation at last week’s meeting and liked what Hay had to say on the production tax credit.
“On a project that size, $570,000 to $600,000 in revenue would be divided between the two counties, depending on the number of towers. It would be a steady, reliable stream of revenue,” Janak said.
The production tax credit is a federal subsidy for wind turbine company owners, Hay explained at the meeting.
Wind and solar energy has been promoted on the local level with the state legislature finding the energy clean, an economical opportunity and could reduce air and wa-
ter pollution, along with its importance to public health, safety and welfare.
The tax credit replaces property tax revenue, which would be at zero in five years. Instead, the production tax credit is in effect for 10 years at 2.3 cents per kilowatt produced by the turbines. The credit has been renewed in recent years by Congress and is $3,518 per megawatt capacity.
Approximately 100 to 115 turbines are proposed for Butler and Saunders counties. A 100-megawatt wind project would pay $351,800 per year, according to Hay.
Wind speeds in Nebraska produce at least 35 percent of electricity because turbines do not continuously run at full power, Nebraska Energy states on its website. The U.S. Department of Energy has been working for taller turbines and longer blades since wind speeds are found at higher altitudes.
As far as setbacks, Johnson said the state might need to look at those.
“Wind power doesn’t look at county borders,” Johnson said. “Butler County has no zoning, so that’s a unique situation there because one has zoning and one doesn’t.”
Saunders County revamped its zoning laws in 2004 to include wind turbines.
The zoning for wind turbines depends on the diameter of the rotors. Rotors 35 feet or larger follow a 365-foot setback in their relationship to the distance between the lot line and the tower’s base.
From what he saw at the meeting, Johnson said there is enough interest to pursue a landowner’s association and both counties should work together. Individual landowners will not gain a good contract on their own, Johnson said.
Janak said most of the people he has talked to were opposed to the turbines.
“My constituents are telling me they don’t want it,” he said.
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