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Bill to open wind energy to private sector widely praised

A state bill that would open wind power to private developers was praised by a variety of groups during a legislative hearing on Wednesday, including some who called it a potential milestone for Nebraska’s fledgling wind power industry.

“I think this is the most significant legislation relating to electricity in this state, probably, since the 1930s,” said Ron Steinbach, a policy administrator with Tri-State Generation and Transmission, a Denver-based wholesale power supplier that serves utilities in western Nebraska. “This is a really big step for this state.”

The bill, LB1048, would allow private developers to build wind farms in Nebraska if at least 90 percent of the power they generate is exported outside the state.

Nebraska is covered solely by public utilities, and the state’s wind development has been dictated by those public power providers. The Nebraska Public Power District has coordinated much of the state’s wind power — initially by building wind farms itself and more recently by soliciting and approving proposals from private developers, who then sell their power back to Nebraska’s public utilities.

This bill, introduced by state Sen. Chris Langemeier of Schuyler, would change that, allowing private wind developers to build outside of the direct oversight of public utilities.

That’s something that isn’t necessarily illegal now, but hasn’t been tried because it would work out uncomfortably for both the developer and utility, said Tim Texel, executive director of the Nebraska Power Review Board.

“It’s like putting a square peg in a round hole,” said Texel, who was involved in drafting the bill. “You ought to be able to do it, but it’s very difficult.”

The bill was born out of a study commissioned last year by the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee, which held Wednesday’s hearing on the bill.

Under the bill, wind power developments would require the approval of the Nebraska Power Review Board based on a large set of criteria, including its effect on transmission equipment of existing utilities and electric rates paid by Nebraska ratepayers, as well as its guaranty of funds to take the tower down.

On Wednesday, more than two dozen people testified in support of the bill, representing groups ranging from public utilities to private developers to local chambers of commerce to ag organizations. The Committee has not yet voted on the bill.

Ron Asche, president and chief executive officer of NPPD, called the bill a “monumental step forward,” saying that the bill’s protection of public power’s authority and its safeguard against rate increases were primary priorities for public utilities.

Texel said that desire for protection was the motivation behind the requirement that only 10 percent of the new private wind projects’ power could stay within the state.

Allowing unlimited amounts of power to stay within the state could flood Nebraska’s power market, hurting the state’s utilities, Texel said.

Despite the widespread support, repeated questions were raised about whether the bill provides enough protection for landowners in eminent domain and turbine decommissioning.

State Sen. Deb Fischer of Valentine said several times that her constituents had expressed concerns about the bill’s allowance of eminent domain to build transmission lines.

Not all were happy with the bill, and some who testified Wednesday said Nebraska’s public power-based laws always would keep some developers out.

The requirement for 10-year power purchase agreements is one barrier, said Andy Pollock of the Nebraska Energy Export Association, which includes landowners, as well as developers.

Chuck Hassebrook of the Center for Rural Affairs said incentives should be offered to increase Nebraska ownership in the wind farms, which would increase the benefits to the state.

Pollock characterized the bill as moving the wind-development issue 60 yards down a 100-yard football field.

“It’s still a big step forward, but we’ve got a couple issues left that keep us out of the red zone,” he said.

But the overwhelming mood of the hearing was one of gratitude for Langemeier’s work creating a compromise between utilities and developers, as well as amazement at how far the state has come in wind development over the past several years.

“We’re just kind of pinching ourselves back there in western Nebraska,” said Jim Young of the Banner County Wind Energy Association board. “We can’t really believe this is happening, and we’re really excited about it.”