LINCOLN — Supporters of a proposal that wind energy developers warn would severely restrict economic development in rural Nebraska said they’re not being heard by their local elected officials.
So they pleaded their case to state lawmakers over 3½ hours on Thursday, when the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee heard often-impassioned testimony from more than a dozen supporters of Sen. Tom Brewer’s Legislative Bill 1054.
The proposal, which is the Gordon senator’s priority piece of legislation, would change the state’s statutory definition of a privately developed renewable energy generation facility to specifically exclude wind energy developments. Projects like hydropower dams and solar energy projects would still count as renewable.
It would also require the Nebraska Power Review Board to allow members of the public to comment at its hearings. The board exerts quasi-judicial authority over matters involving electric transmission and generation in the state.
“This bill gives people affected by wind energy projects a voice and it makes their voice matter. It’s that simple,” Brewer said.
Supporters of LB 1054 engaged the committee in debates reminiscent of those prompted by Brewer’s attempt in the last session to impose an all-out ban on wind energy development in the Nebraska Sand Hills.
The ecologically sensitive area is no stranger to energy-related controversies, including one currently festering that involves a 225-mile high-voltage transmission line to be built by the Nebraska Public Power District.
Supporters of the change came with a multitude of arguments: Some accused developers of using bait-and-switch tactics around promised tax revenue that never materializes; others raised concerns about the potential for negative health effects experienced by those living near the tall white towers. (Iowa, which ranks third in the U.S. in terms of installed wind energy capacity, does not track complaints of this nature because scientists haven’t reported any diseases associated with living near a wind turbine.)
Still others questioned why Nebraska, which already has more electric generation than it needs, needs even more wind energy.
Pro-wind opponents of the proposal countered that wind energy is a major driver of economic development in Nebraska. Rolling back legislative provisions that have streamlined such developments in recent years would make future projects unwieldy and could discourage rural economic development — and put at risk millions of dollars worth of local tax revenues and landowner lease payments.
Besides, residents already have opportunities to air their concerns about such developments at county-level meetings, oftentimes of a zoning or planning commission, opponents of the Brewer bill said.
Rural communities battered by the depressed farm commodities market aren’t the only ones at risk of missing out on future growth, opponents of the bill warned. In metropolitan Omaha, where Facebook is investing more than $400 million on a data center facility, the Omaha Public Power District also took issue with Brewer’s proposal.
Facebook officials last year specifically cited OPPD’s ability to power the developing data facility completely with wind energy as a prime factor in the decision to build there.
OPPD lobbyist Tom Richards said the tactic that enabled the utility to help attract Facebook to town has also landed “a lot of national and international companies in the pipeline” for local economic development projects.