Local News

Wind can save our water

(The following is a letter to the editor from Gary Aksamit)

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been asked by numerous landowners and residents of Nebraska for my point of view in response to the email sent out state wide “NPPD needs to hear from you”. This was a request for feedback on the state’s energy plan in regard to wind power. Of course there are the obvious points like Nebraska is fourth in the United States for wind resource, but I still get frustrated after five years of leading the charge in Thayer County and the state that my major point of issue still hasn’t resonated with people.

Water and wind power are tied at the hip!

You can’t talk about wind power without talking about water. Wind is Nebraska’s second most valuable resource behind water making the obvious “natural resource” connection. Wind is “mechanical generation” – gears turning a generator. Coal, natural gas and nuclear are “thermal generation” – combustion creating steam to turn a generator. Nebraska’s coal powered electricity generation consumes billions of gallons of water every year from the Ogallala Aquifer and Platte River, yet we never hear anyone asking how much that impacts the state’s irrigation water supply. According to dollar figures associated with debates between Kansas and Nebraska, Nebraska’s incumbent coal-generation water consumption is staggering. Also many people point out a wind turbine only operates at full capacity 40-50 percent of the time.

Perhaps it’s time to point out 70 percent of every BTU in the combustion process of a coal generation unit goes unused due to steam passing out of the stacks or to unused heated water. And 150 degree water discharged out at the tail end of the process takes BTUs to heat even though it’s not creating steam at that temperature.

You have to wash coal.

The current energy policy is one which is exchanging Nebraska rate payers dollars for Wyoming coal, but Wyoming Coal is exploiting Nebraska’s water for Wyoming’s economic leverage and benefit. And perhaps even more unsettling is Nebraska sells about 25 percent of it’s generated electricity out of state according to the most current EIA “Energy Information Association” report. Which means that exported electricity is clean by default leaving the water cost and dirty air liability for the tax payers of Nebraska to bear. And by the way, the fact that the EPA is hammering on Public Power to clean up Gerald Gentleman – the state’s 1,365 megawatt coal generation unit at Sutherland – shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone especially Public Power. That facility was called “one of the 50 dirtiest coal generation units” in the US in 2004.

Transmission crosses borders.

Nebraskan’s know more about Nebraska joining the Big 10 than they do about Nebraska joining the SouthWest Power Pool (referred to as the SPP). Nebraska joined the SPP about four years ago which opens the state up to a vast competitive power market that stretches to the coast of Louisiana. Nebraskan’s need to stop thinking of the state as a “closed loop” of power lines; the state is now part of a big world with numerous options available to it. This point ties to the conversation of transmission lines. Is there available capacity? The answer is yes. All across Nebraska and across the central US there are wind farms being proposed which wouldn’t even be contemplated if there wasn’t available unused capacity to provide interconnection to a near-by power line. That is one of the first things I paid to have researched here in Thayer County before we put up the met towers.

Production costs pan out.

Public Power argues they are a “cheap” source of power. Cheap is a relative term. Press releases from Public Power show they think their cost of power generation is between 3-4 cents per kWh. Lincoln Electric System bought power from the Petersburg wind farm for 4 cents per kWh which was in their press release in 2011.

The financial models based on the met towers from both the Monument Road wind project and Byron wind farm projects show those two projects can produce power in line with all those assumptions. There is the obvious attack that wind wouldn’t work without the 30 percent production tax credit, which is the only tax leverage wind has. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out if you go online and search the words “natural gas production tax credit” you will find the natural gas industry enjoys parallel tax benefits.

Where’s our focus, really?

I’ve never said a word when I hear the argument wind electricity is more expensive than coal generated electricity because I know based on my research this is an argument to keep Americans focused on the “voodoo man”. The simple fact is if all the numbers I state above are correct, and wind is at parity with coal generation, then simple supply and demand principals would dictate. If Nebraska brought on line another 50 percent more power generation than they currently have, the price would go down.

Currently the state has 6,000 megawatts of power generation; studies show Nebraska could build 3,000-4,000 megawatts of wind farms, which would by the way, be more than Iowa. The rub on this is wind is inconsistent in nature. So what the coal, natural gas and nuclear power generators grouch about and don’t really want to come out and say, is when the wind does blow, the abundant supply of electricity from the wind farms drives the price down, and when the wind doesn’t blow, they have to hope they have sophisticated enough traders ready to try to catch top paying power buyers demanding power at peak times.

The wind blows more at night and less during the day so my guess is irrigators could figure out a smart game plan to manage their irrigation times if there was a financial benefit to irrigating more at night and off-peak times when power is cheapest. When I look at states around Nebraska with significant wind on line, I find their price of power hasn’t gone up. In fact, in Texas, the nation’s leader with 10,000MW of wind farms, the retail price of power is at 10 year record lows. Rate payers in Texas have the ability to select a program called “free nights and weekends” which means the power during the day is purchased at nine cents per kWh fixed price and if the consumer is smart about electricity use, they can manage their usage around the free nights and weekends.

What has gone up are the overhead costs of the utility companies serving the states. Nebraska has seen a 50 percent increase in rates across the state over the last five years while the price of electricity from wind, coal and natural gas has been static.

Who wins with wind?

So who has the most to gain from a wind farm? The people of the counties and towns directly around the wind farm do. A 100 megawatt wind farm generates about $1 million (est) per year in local revenue. That breaks down to $400,000 a year in landowner payment, $300,000 a year in property tax paid by the wind farm on the turbines and $300,000 a year in employee salaries for service technicians on the turbines. Most of that money stays right in the local economy and goes on to generate more economic impacts in the “money velocity factor” – dollars spent changing hands over and over throughout the local economy. So these wind farms in your county might be the best value to you and the local power provider. It’s a question of do you want to send the money somewhere else or keep it in the local economy? It’s your electricity bill, you should have a say in where the money goes.

In closing I want to bury the hatchet. I am motivated by the desire to bring Thayer County into a new way of thinking about energy and to give Nebraskans a chance to preserve it’s water supply by advocating we move a majority of the states power generation away from thermal coal generation thereby saving the water for the state’s 120,000 irrigation wells. This isn’t a politically polarized subject from my point of view, but Americans watch too much TV and think anything about renewable energy has something to do with Solindra or a European agenda to take over America’s energy industry. I refuse to allow Thayer County to sit by and allow companies from out-of-state or out-of-country come here to make the money and develop the wind farms, then toss the landowners “a bone” when they leave. The wind is Nebraska’s and it’s Thayer County’s.

If I told you there was $500,000,000 in natural gas under the ground beneath Thayer County would that pique your interest?  Well there happens to be a huge natural resource worth that much above ground and very few people have come to any of our landowner meetings to show any curiosity in it. When you step outside this summer in the 100 degree heat with all the irrigation running, think about this; there is a coal generation unit consuming a lot of water in western Nebraska energizing the power lines that ultimately power many of the irrigation wells right here in Thayer County. Are we robbing Peter to pay Paul because no one has a better energy policy?

Your friend – always fighting for a better plan.
~Gary Aksamit

Leave a Reply