Bluestem Energy Solutions opened the doors to one of three wind turbines at a project in Fairmont Tuesday, inviting Hamilton County residents in to see and tour the facility as well as ask questions about a venture said to be comparable to the proposal near Aurora.
“The layout of this facility is almost a replication of what we are proposing in Hamilton County, except this is three turbines where the total in Hamilton County would be four turbines,” explained Matt Robinette, Bluestem’s vice president of development. “You see and read a lot of things on the internet, where you can find anything you want taking one side of the issue or the other. The best thing to do is just come around the facility.”
On a cold, windy day just west of Fairmont near the intersection of Highway 6 and Highway 81, company officials answered questions for a small number of visitors including some both opposed to and in support of the Hamilton County project while standing inside the base of the far east turbine. Each of the three towering white units measures 489 feet to the tip of the blade in Fairmont, while the Aurora proposal calls for turbines measuring 497 in height.
“Very few concerns were voiced here, but until you start working through the process you don’t know,” said Adam Herink, company president, when asked if any opposition was voiced in Fillmore County when the project was initiated. “The closest residential dwellings in Hamilton County are just over half a mile away and there are residential dwellings here that would actually be closer.
“Some counties welcome you with open arms, but you just don’t read about those in the local papers,” he continued. “What we find is that every time we bring somebody out to one of our sites and actually get them around the turbine, they walk away with a better impression of the impact than they had before.”
Bluestem officials were drawn to this Fillmore County site initially due to its already developed industrial landscape, which features an ethanol plant, corn processing plant and large cattle feedlot all in close proximity. The Omaha-based company now has nine operating wind farm projects of varying size, with other developments reportedly under way.
“Part of our job is to try to develop sites that have the least amount of negative impacts and we work hard to try to do that,” Herink said. “You develop projects and those projects have consequences, though we believe there are a lot of positive things that are going to come from the Hamilton County wind farm.”
Robinette expanded on that point.
“There are multiple things going into the siting process, but we try to find areas that are already relatively disrupted, so at this site you see two major highways, you see grain elevators, the ethanol plant, a gas station and railroad tracks,” he said. “Again, all of those things would be very similar to the site in Hamilton County, where you’ve got the interstate less than a half mile away, a major interchange, gas station and railroad tracks in close proximity.”
As for the size of the project in Fairmont and the proposed project near Aurora, Herink said Bluestem has proven that the smaller business model can and does work.
“We’re a big fan of these community type projects because we believe they offer a nice, local area, carbon-free solution of fixed-priced electricity, but they don’t have the large footprint that a large wind farm would take up,” he said. “That’s the evolution in the industry that allows us to use commercial scale wind turbines, but a smaller amount of them, and still do it cost-effectively.”
Information provided by Bluestem officials at the open house listed a number of economic impact factors. Included among those were local construction estimated at $1 million (Boyd Jones Construction, a separate entity for which Herink serves as vice president, serves as Bluestem’s general contractor, with some work typically handled by local subcontractors); $1.4 million in property taxes to the county over the life of the project; and $519,000 in ongoing economic activity over the life of the project.
One of the biggest factors, Herink pointed out, was the potential benefit to area farmers, who could see a premium for each bushel of corn used by the local ethanol plant. Though Pacific Aurora, which is owned jointly by California-based Pacific Ethanol and the Aurora Cooperative, was not listed as a potential buyer of wind-generated power when the proposal was first discussed in 2016, it is touted as a potential end user in 2019.
“It’s a very similar situation to what we have here,” Herink said at the Fairmont site. “There is a Flint Hills ethanol plant here served by the local utility and this wind farm is directly interconnected at their substation, so we can point to where the renewable energy is created and where it’s used.”
Herink sited a study released by the Renewable Fuels Association in September which estimated the corn price premium linked to ethanol at 20 to 26 cents per bushel.
“The ethanol industry values this because they can sell into markets that will pay a premium for ethanol produced by low-carbon energy,” he said. “They are really the beneficial recipient of this product. So obviously supporting the local ethanol industry really affects all the farmers in the area because they’ll see that additional premium when they sell their product.”
Regulations establishing setback requirements between wind turbines and the nearest occupied dwellings are often a critical point of contention at sites where opposition is voiced. On that topic, Bluestem officials offered clarification to an earlier report regarding setback requirements in Lancaster County.
The Lincoln Journal Star reported in February that the Lancaster County Board requires wind energy developers to place turbines at least 1 mile away from homes that aren’t participating in the project. Those regulations were amended in March stipulating that for a non-participating lot, the setback shall be two times the turbine height measured to the property line, or five times the turbine height, measured to the closest exterior wall of the dwelling unit, whichever is greater, but at a minimum 1,000 feet to the property line. Based on the height of towers in Fairmont, that would involve a setback of nearly half a mile.
Questions have also been raised about Bluestem’s decommissioning plan, which would come into play in for any reason the wind turbines had to be shut down and removed. If the Hamilton County project needed to be decommissioned for any reason, Herink reported that Bluestem Energy would be responsible for administering the process. While the engineer, procure, construct (EPC) entity would be chosen at the time of decommissioning, he said Bluestem has a proposed decommissioning plan and commitment to Hamilton County which would provide Hamilton County financial assurance in the form of a bond or a letter of credit to ensure the costs associated with the decommissioning plan are available starting in Year 1.
In addition, he said, decommissioning costs will be updated every five years and the financial assurance will be updated accordingly.
“Through this process, Hamilton County can be assured the funds will be available to safely dismantle the turbines and remove them from the site,” he said. “In addition, we have language in all our land leases holding us to the same or similar decommissioning standards.”
Editor’s note: A related story will be posted on the ANR website Friday sharing input and reaction to the Bluestem wind energy project from several Fairmont residents, including a county commissioner and several area neighbors.
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