Nebraska wind power making strides, continues to face challenges

Story, photos and video by Megan Brincks, NewsNetNebraska

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Robert Byrnes works on a new wind turbine on his energy farm near Lyons, Neb.

Robert Byrnes hates to throw away things. Even if something is broken, he sees an opportunity to re-use the parts for something else. In his most recent endeavor, Byrnes built a wind turbine using a mix of new components, parts from old turbines and a little duct tape to hold it all together. The result: a smart-looking machine with a green center and deep brown blades that spin like crazy in the Nebraska wind on the front lawn of his energy farm near Lyons, Neb.

Byrnes, the owner and operator of Nebraska Renewable Energy Systems, passionately advocates for renewable energy in Nebraska through his private business that helps individuals set up renewable energy sources for their homes. Everything on his energy farm– from the heating in the house to the fuel for the tractor – runs  from completely off-the-grid sources. He uses a combination of several renewable power sources, including solar, biodiesel and wind. Byrnes calls his farm a “demonstration project” for what energy in Nebraska could look like.

“We’re doing some good stuff,” Byrnes said about his work to bring renewable energy to private homes and businesses. But, he warned Nebraska is headed for an energy hitch without major changes. Those changes, he said, could come with wind.

The American Wind Energy Association ranked Nebraska sixth in the nation for potential production of wind energy based on its advantageous wind velocity, but in 2010, Nebraska produced only enough to place it 25th in actual wind energy production compared to other states. Although Nebraska wind farms continue to develop, Nebraska faces challenges in becoming a national leader in wind energy. The biggest barriers are public ownership of power companies and lack of infrastructure.

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Nebraska lags behind leading states in wind production, but it greatly outperforms others. Image courtesy the U.S. Department of Energy.

Unlike other states, Nebraska’s energy providers are public corporations that sell to towns and rural public power districts. Power in every other state is either privately owned or owned in a combination of public and private. Because of this, Nebraska offers fewer incentives for wind energy, said Graham Christensen, public affairs director for the Nebraska Farmers Union. NFU strongly supports wind energy as part of its mission to improve the quality of life of Nebraska farmers.

The other biggest obstacle to wind energy in Nebraska is the limited infrastructure. Christensen said the most potential for harnessing wind energy is in the middle north part of Nebraska, a sparsely populated area.

The current transmission system, which moves the energy from where it is generated to where it will be used, was built with the concept that the most energy will be generated around towns. While this works well for energy produced at plants, such as nuclear and coal, it does not work well for wind.

“Wind sources are in the least populated areas,” said Jerry Loos, public information officer with the Nebraska Energy Office. He said because transmission costs are more expensive, fewer people see wind as a viable option. Even though the power districts developed several wind farms in recent years, Loos said the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) and the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) will need to develop many more wind farms to reach their 10 percent goal.

NPPD, which serves 91 of the 93 counties in Nebraska, and OPPD both committed to using 10 percent renewable energy by 2020, which will equate to about 800 megawatts of power, or anywhere from 260 to 500 new wind turbines, depending on the new turbines’ production capacity. In 2009, the NPPD used 1.5 percent of its energy from wind compared to 64 percent from coal. So far, NPPD is well on the way to hitting the renewable energy goal by using wind and other renewable energy sources, according to Jeanne Schieffer, corporate communications and public relations manager for NPPD.

“NPPD has always believed in a diverse energy mix,” Schieffer said. “We can balance those resources in the most economical way.”

She said NPPD will focus on wind instead of other forms of renewable energy as it works toward the 10 percent goal.

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Commercial farms across Nebraska feed power into the NPPD grid. Image courtesy Nebraska Energy Office.

Schieffer championed NPPD’s strides to use wind energy, but other wind proponents in the state said public power companies should do more.

“Ten percent by 2020 is great, but it’s still not very aggressive,” Christensen said, adding that he thinks NPPD and OPPD will achieve the goal because it was voluntary. He said coal, especially from Wyoming, is cheap, but diesel fuel is making transportation costs to Nebraska more expensive.

Loos said because energy in Nebraska is so inexpensive, people are less willing to invest in wind. Even though current energy prices are low, others disagree that changing the current balance between energy sources would increase costs.

“Wind is now becoming very cost competitive with coal,” Christensen said. “When you sell wind, you sell energy off these turbines for 20 years.”

Christensen said he expects to see more pressure to implement a carbon tax in the future, which makes wind, in his mind, the “long-term obvious option.” Even though Christensen said political talk about carbon tax has been shelved recently, he feels confident the issue will return. When it does, he sees it as an opportunity to “even the playing field for renewable energy.”

Mark Becker, media relations specialist of NPPD, said adding wind energy takes time and planning.

“We have a board-mandated goal to have this in place by 2020. We are half-way there,” Becker said. “We are moving as fast as we can.”

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Wind production in Nebraska continues to grow, but not as fast as some would like. Image courtesy Nebraska Energy Office.

For proponents such as Byrnes, wind energy should come even faster, and power companies should lead the transition to sustainable energy sources.

“Public power shouldn’t have profit in mind; they should be environmental crusaders, but they’re not!” Byrnes said.

Even though Byrnes works every day to promote alternative energy sources in the private sector, he said he thinks the U.S. will get in an energy pinch before people take larger measures to move away from non-renewable energy.

“When we finally feel the pains, we’re not going to have the means to make the pain go away,” Byrnes said.

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