What began as rumors turned into what rural Gage County residents fear is an eyesore in the making as plans to build a wind turbine near their homes northeast of Beatrice progress.
Margaret Zimmerman, who lives in the area in question, said friends were asking her about a wind turbine being built.
She knew nothing about the project. Then workers started digging.
“We had to find out from hearsay, then we had to call people and then finally called the person putting it on his land and asked right out,” she said. “People were starting to call us because they were hearing about it. We had no idea. If I look out, that’s what I’m going to see.”
Zimmerman said the work began without warning more than a week ago.
The wind turbine, a project of Bluestem Energy Solutions, would ultimately provide power to the city of Beatrice.
Despite work starting, City Administrator Tobias Tempelmeyer said the project is still in the early stages, and the fact that digging has begun is misleading some to think it’s a done deal.
The city has been toying with the idea of bringing renewable energy to Beatrice for more than a year.
Talks got more serious around the time it was decided last year that Beatrice would abandon Nebraska Public Power District in favor of AEP Energy Partners Inc., based out of Columbus, Ohio.
Tempelmeyer said that in 2016, a 100 percent federal tax credit is available to Bluestem for the project. That credit drops to 80 percent if work starts after 2016, so some preliminary work is being done at the proposed site to show that construction started this calendar year.
He was unsure exactly what aspects of the project the tax credit would cover.
The proposed site for the windmill is northeast of Beatrice, about 4 ½ miles east of Highway 77 and three miles north of Highway 136, near the intersection of South 41st and East Juniper roads.
While early work has started at the site, Tempelmeyer stressed there are still several variables in play, and the site or project overall could be abandoned.
“Now we have to decide if we want to move forward with the project, we’re not sure on that one,” he said. “Then we will have two contracts with Bluestem… If either fail, the project is done.”
One of those contracts would be an agreement on what price the city will pay for the energy. The other is an interconnect agreement that would allow the energy from the turbine to connect to the city.
The city’s current agreement with Bluestem stipulates that if they negotiate in good faith and the two parties can’t reach an agreement, the city would pay $25,000 to walk away from the project, which Tempelmeyer said is a “very small percentage” of the work Bluestem put into it.
Lisa Wiegand, Chair of the Gage County Planning and Zoning Commission, said construction of such a wind turbine would also require public hearings and permits at the county level.
No permits have currently been filed, and Wiegand added she became aware of the project earlier this week.
The project has a lot of unknowns, could be killed at the city level and would need blessing from the county – which increased setback requirements and lowered the acceptable decibel level in March, after nearly two years of heated meetings where members of the public expressed a strong opposition.
Still, none of this is reassuring to some rural residents northeast of Beatrice.
Zimmerman said some are planning on going door to door in the area to make sure everyone knows about the project, and believes officials have been trying to keep them in the dark and not been forthcoming with plans.
“We want to keep at it, but I don’t know if we’ll be able because it seems the city of Beatrice is in cahoots about it,” she said. “They don’t tell you the truth and they him-haw and push you around…All they’re doing is lying to people and not telling the truth and nobody knows anything.”
The Gage County Board of Supervisors discussed the issue during its Wednesday meeting, where Board Chairman Myron Dorn said Bluestem should have gotten a permit before digging.
County Attorney Roger Harris echoed this, and indicated the county isn’t pursuing a $150 fine for the company at this time.
“You can’t start building a pole barn with the foundation and stuff, then go ‘Oh, I’m just doing this for my tax credits this year and come back next year and get the permit,’” Harris said. “Come on. Just get the permit. Hopefully it was an oversight. Until I know differently, I’ll treat it that way.”
Throughout the process, Tempelmeyer said the city will consider the opinions of those who live in the proposed area.
“We are concerned,” Tempelmeyer said. “We want to be good neighbors to everyone around Beatrice…It’s not definite. It’s not certain. We’re still evaluating the project. There are a lot of moving parts right now. We’ll determine what makes the best sense.”
He added places like the area near the Homestead National Monument of America, inside city limits or near the landfill were previously ruled out as possible locations, and said Bluestem conducted the research that led to the area northeast of town being selected.
Assuming plans are accepted for the turbine, it would be a 2-megawatt unit owned and operated by Bluestem and all energy produced would be sold to Beatrice at a fixed price for 25 years.
Ultimately, the city hopes to have three wind turbines generating power for Beatrice.
Initial plans only call for one because the city’s current contract with NPPD caps the amount of renewable energy available at 2 megawatts. When that contract ends, adding two more turbines would bring the total amount of energy generated to 6 megawatts. Tempelmeyer said this is roughly the lowest amount of energy Beatrice uses at one time.
Beatrice will gradually reduce the amount of energy purchased from NPPD as it purchases more from AEP, completing the transition when its NPPD contract expires in 2021.
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