Partnership JournalismApril 10, 2023

Wind of Change: Energy Blows Across Nebraska Thanks to Wind Farms

By Arjav Rawal (The Reader) and John Upton (Climate Central), with data reporting by Joseph Giguere (Climate Central).

This story was produced through a collaboration between The Reader in Omaha and Climate Central.

When Petersburg farmer Larry Temme learned in 2006 that the Nebraska Public Power District wanted to install a wind energy farm, he and Doug Koch, the village’s top economic development official, teamed up to put Temme’s farm on the map as a possible location.

“We visited their board meetings two or three times before they selected us,” said Koch.

The 54 turbines now spin between corn, alfalfa and other crops on Temme’s land, two-and-a-half hours northeast of Omaha in a town with a population of a few hundred people. They aren’t just producing clean electricity — they’re generating income and local taxes. The Petersburg native says they’ve saved local grocery stores from closure and helped stem population losses that have plagued rural communities for the last decade.

“The decline would’ve been worse if it weren’t for wind energy,” said Temme. “We’d still be here, but it would’ve been very difficult.”

Tina Stokes, who sits on the Boone County Development Agency’s board of directors, describes the jobs created by the project as a huge plus.

“More homes were built; we expanded our campground capacity, and some of them still come up to visit with their families,” said Stokes.

Wind energy in Nebraska is not new — the state’s first turbines were installed 25 years ago — but it’s seen a spurt of growth, with a third of the wind energy facilities in the state having come online in just the last five years, thanks in part to near-complete deregulation of its development.

Despite the acceleration, growth has lagged that of other states in the region, which have embraced wind power as an economic workhorse. Advocates say that’s primarily because Nebraska provides no incentives or tax credits for wind power development beyond what the federal government offers.

Now, rising opposition to wind energy threatens to slow its growth further, if not stall it entirely.

Wind turbines take advantage of reliably blustery winds across Nebraska. They release no air or climate pollution, but they alter landscape views. If built close to homes, they can have noise impacts on the residents and create strobe-like flicker effects.

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Nebraska is a prime location for wind energy. Photo courtesy Village of Petersburg.

Experts say Nebraska is a prime location to become an important wind energy hub that could export clean energy to other states where demand is growing quickly. There’s also potential for substantial job gains.

Researchers with the Net Zero America project at Princeton University mapped various development pathways by which the U.S. could reach “net zero” by 2050, meaning the country would release no overall heat-trapping pollution by then. The scenarios rely on heavy wind energy development through the Midwest.

PJ: Nebraska Wind Image 2 2023

Jesse Jenkins, a Princeton professor and lead author of the Net Zero America report, says solar energy generation doesn’t vary substantially based on geography, making it relatively easy to build solar projects across the country close to where people live.

Wind energy, on the other hand, benefits significantly from areas with strong gusts. Wind energy production generally works better in rural areas than urban ones because more space is available and fewer residents are impacted, meaning transmission lines need to be built to cities where most energy is used.

Jenkins describes Nebraska as part of a “wind belt” in the U.S. where there’s already a huge amount of wind generation, primarily in Texas and Iowa. While Nebraska ranks fourth among U.S. states for potential wind energy generation, it ranks 15th in installed capacity. This has pushed much of what could be an economic bonanza into other states. While more than 1,500 turbines operated in Nebraska last year, Iowa had four times as many during the same period.

Iowa’s wind farms produced more energy last year than all of its households consume. That’s helped the state lure large tech companies with ambitious climate goals to set up power-hungry data operations within the Hawkeye state. It’s also fueled a boom in manufacturing and attracted other suppliers in the wind energy supply chain.

Similarly, as wind energy has grown in Nebraska, so has investment in data centers. Facebook’s decision to set up in Papillion was credited to the Omaha Public Power District, which promised to provide 100% renewable electricity to the data center, courtesy of the Rattlesnake Creek wind farm in Dixon County. Another expansion, which will be powered by the same wind farm, is underway in nearby Springfield.

Google has purchased 100% renewable energy for its operations since 2017, which include a data center outside Papillion and a planned expansion in northwest Omaha. Outside of the metro area, cryptocurrency data centers have taken an interest in the Nebraska Public Power District, whose electricity generation is 62% carbon-free. (Nearly 47% of NPPD’s energy production comes from nuclear energy, which is considered clean but not renewable and presents other concerns about the safe disposal of nuclear waste.)

The Rocky Mountain Institute, a pro-renewable-energy think tank, projects that Iowa municipalities, landowners and workers could collectively earn $5.3 billion in local taxes, lease payments and wages from wind farms built during the 2020s. By contrast, the smaller number of wind farms expected in Nebraska are projected to produce $290 million in such benefits within the same period.

“I just think it’s short-sighted to not think about the longer-term economic opportunities. I mean, those jobs are being created elsewhere,” said Jeremy Richardson, a Rocky Mountain Institute official. Richardson, who comes from a family of coal miners, works on projects designed to help ensure that fossil fuel workers and communities benefit from the shift to clean energy. “Some people hate wind turbines, and my response is always like, ‘Well, come to West Virginia, and I’ll show you how we blow up mountaintops to dig coal.’”

PJ: Nebraska Wind Image 3 2023

In addition to leasing his land for wind production, Temme owns the Rae Valley Market, a local grocery store in Petersburg. The store was struggling before the wind farm was built. But Temme said the revenue from the wind farm has helped him expand the store and open a new one in Newman Grove.

Temme said tax revenue brought in by the wind farm allowed the school board to lower its levy. The farm generates about $400,000 in local taxes annually, said Temme, who has served on the school board, roughly halving the district’s levy on property taxes.

“It’s just a supplemental source of income that happens to be green energy,” Temme said.

‘Legislative Gymnastics’

At the federal level, incentives and tax credits are available for producing wind energy. Apart from Wyoming, every state bordering Nebraska has had some version of a renewable portfolio standard, which requires utilities to sell certain amounts of renewable energy to their customers.

Nebraska lawmakers have never passed subsidies or mandates for renewable energy production. All of the growth in solar and wind energy has been market-driven.

Rich Lombardi, a lobbyist for the Advanced Power Alliance, which represents renewable energy companies, said the wind energy industry wanted renewable portfolio standards in Nebraska. But he and his allies in the Nebraska Legislature didn’t think it was a good idea.

“We didn’t want to be in a situation where we were telling the public power districts what to do,” said Lombardi. “The environmentalist community decided that it would be better to instead run for the power boards, since that would be incredibly powerful.”

Lombardi chose a different tack — to lobby for legislation that eased regulations on the wind energy industry and extend incentives available to other industries. While the incentives never happened, deregulation did.

In April 2016, John McCollister, then a freshman senator in the Nebraska Legislature, authored legislation that almost entirely deregulated wind energy development in the state. McCollister said the bill was modeled on previous attempts that had failed.

“Passing that bill was legislative gymnastics at its finest,” said McCollister. “We couldn’t get it out of [the Natural Resources] committee because the language of ‘renewable energy’ was offensive to a couple of committee members.”

McCollister said he worked with Ken Schilz, the committee chair at the time, to introduce a bill without that language and have it voted out of committee. When it came to the floor, McCollister amended the bill to put the wind-energy-related language back in.

“We were chastised by the speaker for changing the bill substantially, but it was well within legislative procedures. Bills get amended on the floor all the time,” said McCollister.

Despite a filibuster, the gymnastics worked. Since the bill was signed into law, the number of wind farms in Nebraska has nearly doubled. Last year, Nebraska got nearly a third of its electricity from wind energy.

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Rural Nebraskans are waning on support for wind energy compared with just seven years ago.

Despite the expansion of wind energy, public support for it in rural communities appears to be waning, even amidst increasing alarm over the effects of climate change. In 2015, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln found 75% of rural Nebraskans wanted increased investment in wind energy; in 2022, that number was 45%.

Rising Headwinds

State Sen. Tom Brewer represents the largest district by area in the state, home to the Sandhills and much of the Nebraska Panhandle. Brewer is considered the figurehead of the opposition to wind energy in Nebraska. He and his legislative aide, Tony Baker, have advised county commissions on how to advance zoning regulations that would effectively kill proposed wind projects. Over the last eight years, there have been 26 attempts by counties or townships to do just that.

This year, Brewer introduced legislation that would effectively repeal the provisions of McCollister’s bill.

Brewer said he was unavailable for an interview due to scheduling conflicts; Baker was.

As Brewer traveled the 43rd district in 2016, campaigning against incumbent Al Davis, Baker said the only two issues constituents asked for action on were property taxes and standing firm against the expansion of wind energy.

After a tough campaign, Davis narrowly lost his reelection bid to Brewer. He attributes it to his support for wind energy, saying that at campaign events, Brewer’s team would hand out copies of a 2015 article profiling Davis’ support for renewable energy.

“There were meetings across the district about the evils of wind … Several counties I’d won in the primary turned in the fall,” said Davis.

Before the campaign, Baker said he had been a strong supporter of wind energy, citing oil baron T. Boone Pickens’ energy plan. In that plan, first introduced in 2008, wind energy was intended as a mechanism to reduce the United States’ dependency on foreign oil. (The plan was eventually abandoned after Pickens decided that natural gas was more economical.)

It was the campaign, Baker said, that changed his mind about wind energy.

“We visited the home of a woman who had built a wind farm on her property. It was two-and-a-half miles away from the front porch. There was this constant, persistent noise that sounded like a jet taking off. Except it never takes off,” said Baker.

Baker said the value of her property has collapsed as a result of that wind farm. The noise pollution, he said, has driven any prospective buyer away.

It’s difficult to know what an acceptable level of noise is for wind turbines, although they’ve become quieter in recent years thanks to newer technology. Academic research into the noise pollution of wind turbines concludes that it boils down to personal preference. Ultimately, it depends on where the wind turbine is relative to where someone is positioned. A report from the American Wind Energy Association describes a wind farm operating 750-1,000 feet away as no noisier than a kitchen refrigerator.

“I grew up in a home that was half a mile from a railroad track. Wind farms aren’t much compared to that,” said Stokes.

A summary of studies on the National Association of Realtors’ website suggests that the jury’s still out on whether property values are significantly impacted by the installation of wind turbines. Some research suggests that the asking prices could be lower for properties where the view was strongly impacted by wind turbines. Other research suggests property values may be positively impacted by wind energy, although that research looks at other countries, where social attitudes toward wind energy may be different.

In his seven years in the Legislature, Brewer has taken a hard stance against wind energy, introducing several bills aimed at preventing its expansion.

Instead, Brewer has proposed that in order for the state’s power companies to meet their clean-power goals, they should explore investing in small modular nuclear reactors, an expensive form of energy that is gaining public support but still in the research and development phase. In 2015, 24% of rural Nebraskans wanted more investment in nuclear energy. Last year, that number was up to 36%.

Still, Brewer doesn’t hold it against farmers who welcome wind energy.

“You have to remember, the cattle market has had depressed prices for the last 10 years or so. And then here comes a guy who says he’ll pay you $10,000 every year for the next 20 years if you install wind turbines on your land,” said Baker.

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A wind farm in Petersburg, Nebraska. Photo courtesy the Village of Petersburg.

In Petersburg, both Temme and Koch see that as a reliable asset, citing the unpredictability of harvest seasons.

“If you’ve got this fixed revenue coming in every year, that can help steady things a bit,” said Koch.

‘Keeping Nebraska Open for Business’

Tim Gay had just begun his stint in the Nebraska Legislature when the very first wind energy bill was introduced in 2007.

“No one had heard of any of this stuff. You didn’t really have a climate discussion. It was just a different form of energy that we wanted to try,” said Gay.

After leaving the Legislature in 2010, Gay joined Husch Blackwell, a law firm, before launching his own lobbying firm. For the last decade, he’s represented NextEra Energy and Invenergy, two large corporations that have developed utility-scale wind farms in Nebraska.

“Because Nebraska’s unique in being a public power state, a lot of developers would come in and not understand it, or there would be barriers to entry,” said Gay. “Much of that was removed with the McCollister bill.”

Gay said McCollister’s legislation has fostered a healthy legislative climate around renewable energy.

“There’s more defense going on than offense in the renewables world,” said Gay. “As things get developed more, there’s been more questions and pushback … but the bread-and-butter is still preserving that climate and keeping Nebraska open for business in renewables.”

“The truth is that we’re not really in a policy or advocacy phase anymore,” said Lombardi. “The market’s already driving this … Now it’s really about how creative we can get with the tools we’ve been given.”