Nebraska wind energy would boost economy

Nebraska could add thousands of new jobs, lower its electric bills and improve the health of its citizens if it built more wind energy projects by 2030, a coalition of local energy leaders said Thursday.

Nebraska has arrived late on the wind energy scene compared with Iowa.

But not too late, according to a new study commissioned by the Nebraska Chapter of the Sierra Club.

More investment in wind generation and energy-efficient technology could create 14,000 jobs and save ratepayers $3.8 billion over the next 20 years, said John “Skip” Laitner, a Tucson, Ariz., economist and consultant who formerly worked in the Nebraska Energy Office.

What’s more, ramping up wind power could cut the release of hundreds of thousands of tons of pollution from coal-fired electrical plants each year, the analysis showed.

“There is such a large opportunity that Nebraska can take full advantage of,” said Laitner, adding that Nebraskans could get half of their electricity from wind by the same 20-year time frame.

Other studies on the potential of wind power have been national or regional in scope. The study by Laitner, who also worked for the Environmental Protection Agency, focuses just on Nebraska.

It was released Thursday during a press conference at the State Capitol attended by clean energy advocates and two state senators who support legislation and policies to help Nebraska increase wind power generation.

The analysis comes two days after the dedication of the state’s newest wind farm, a 50-turbine project near Broken Bow that will generate 80 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 25,000 homes. And it comes four days before the start of the fifth Nebraska Wind Conference in Lincoln.

Although Nebraska ranks fourth in terms of wind potential in the United States, it ranks 25th in capacity. Only 1.2 percent of Nebraska’s overall energy production comes from wind.

In comparison, Iowa derives 20 percent of its energy from wind, yet it ranks seventh in wind potential. Wind provides power for more than 1 million homes in Iowa.

“That’s a shame for a state that claims rankings are so important,” said Omaha Sen. Heath Mello.

If the rankings released Thursday involved data centers or biochip makers rather than wind turbines, elected officials would be eager to create incentives to improve the state’s position, Mello said. But past efforts to do likewise for wind have failed to gain traction.

“Why are we not looking at our tax statutes to incentivize this industry,” he asked.

The federal production tax credit was a key driver in the growth of wind power in Iowa and other big wind states, such as Texas, California, Illinois and Minnesota.

The credit wasn’t as helpful in Nebraska because its public utilities could not directly obtain the tax credits. Only in recent years were laws enacted to allow the Cornhusker State to benefit from the credits.

Meanwhile, the state’s largest power producers say they are increasing their investment in renewable energy. Nebraska Public Power District, for example, has set a goal of generating 10 percent of its electricity with wind turbines by 2020.

Sen. Ken Haar of Lincoln said the goals need to be set higher. In making another argument for wind, he pointed out how wind energy projects generate $1.3 million in annual property tax payments to local governments. The study showed that figure could grow to $130 million annually if the benchmarks used in the analysis are met.

John Hansen, director of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said Thursday that Nebraska got behind ethanol early in its development and it has emerged as a major economic force in the state. He predicted the same will prove true for wind power.

“That’s not only environmentally green, it’s economically green,” Hansen said.

By Joe Duggan,