Western Nebraska Observer - Observations all along the line - Kimball & the Southern Panhandle First

By Daniel Thompson
Reporter 

Could wind power be Kimball's next boom?

As concerns over CO2 emissions mount, some see wind as answer

 

Jacob Misener

Several windmills are in place northwest of the City of Kimball. However, no plans are in the works to expand on the area in the immediate future.

With the rail spur project completely stagnant and many new businesses failing to keep their doors open during tough economic times, many are pondering the question of just what has the potential to revitalize Kimball and bring new faces to the community.

However, in recent years, local organizations have been turning their focus to a staple of day-to-day life in the Panhandle in hopes of jumpstarting the local economy: wind.

The idea of harnessing wind energy in order to reduce harmful emissions into the atmosphere has been a lengthy process for the state of Nebraska, with the first major victory coming in the form of the Kimball Wind Project that was completed in 2002.

According to the Municipal Energy Association of Nebraska (MEAN) website pertaining to the project, it was initially conceived to provide “reliable, economical, environmentally friendly energy to MEAN’s participating utilities and their customers.”

At the groundbreaking ceremony for the Kimball wind farm that now sits Northwest of the city of Kimball, Senator Mike Johanns, serving as the Governor of Nebraska at the time, spoke of the great promise that the wind farm and the ability to harness wind power would lead the state as a whole into the future.

“Today, MEAN, NMPP Energy and Kimball embark on a journey into the future. Together they are taking steps into what will be Nebraska’s energy future: producing an increasing amount of electricity from wind. Today, the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska and its members are showing that our wind resources can be developed. The steps we are taking here today can lead to tomorrow’s big successes,”Johanns said.

MEAN officially dedicated the wind farm, which was the state’s first large commercial wind farm and the largest wind farm of its time in Nebraska, on November 13, 2002 with then executive director for NMPP Energy, Richard Duxbury, expressing his excitement at the project reaching its completion.

“Achieving a clean, sustainable energy future is an enormous challenge for all of us. We are very pleased the planning and construction of the MEAN Wind Project at Kimball is complete,” Duxbury said.

From October 2002 to September 2003, its first full year in service, the wind farm generated 29,263,232 kilowatt-hours, enough to power almost 3,000 homes for an entire year. The development was was projected to offset carbon dioxide emissions by 20,484 tons, sulfur dioxide emissions by 117 tons, and nitrous oxide emissions by 58.5 tons, according the MEAN website.

With the seeming success of the Kimball wind farm, other counties in the area started pushing for their own wind projects, most notably the Banner County Wind Energy Association’s ‘Big Wind’ project which has been worked on for several years.

However, according to Banner County Wind Energy Association (BCWEA) chairman, Jim Young, little progress has been made on the project in recent years.

“We’re still plugging away. We’re having meetings, and we’re sending met tower data to Wyoming and stuff like that, but there’s no transmission lines and there’s no prospects for transmission lines. Until there is, it’s a dead issue,” Young said.

The lack of transmission lines is the biggest issue stalling the Banner County project due to its prohibitive cost.

“Transmission lines are extremely expensive to build. It’s a pretty bleak outlook even though we have some of the best wind. There’s an area in Banner County that’s one of the top three sites in the entire nation for availability of wind,” Young said.

Another issue bogging down the project is the lack of interest of out-of-state entities in buying the power that would be produced from the wind farm if it were constructed.

“There are issues in Nebraska. For instance, in Nebraska, we can ship power out of state, but then you have to find somebody who wants to buy it out of state. The problem with that is, we can not ship power in-state, because of the laws in Nebraska,” Young said.

However, the project was not always as implausible as it seems currently. At one time, the project had two developers looking into the area for its potential for generating wind energy: Midwest Wind Energy based out of Chicago, Illinois and Terra-Gen Power, LLC based out of California.

“Between the two of them, they leased up enough acres to do huge projects which if they do any projects in Banner County, it’s going to have to be huge, because it costs so much money to do transmission lines. You couldn’t just build a tower and spend a fortune on transmission lines,” Young said.

However, in the past year, the project has lost both developers, making its completion less tangible.

“Right now, we don’t even have a developer, because all the developers pulled out. Midwest Energy, which was the most active developer in Nebraska, sold out to another company so they’re no longer in business. Terra-Gen, which is based out of California, I don’t think they have any interest in Nebraska anymore,” Young said.

According to Young, the project was never a guarantee, even in its conception. All parties involved knew very well that their plans may never come to be.

“I don’t think we ever had real high hopes for it. We knew it was a long shot since the beginning. When Midwest Energy came in and leased up the area, they told us that this was a long shot, and they weren’t going to give us very much an acre for a lease. There were no guarantees that there’d ever be wind towers,” Young said.

Despite a lack of optimism from many people in the area, the group is still active in pursuing the project, focusing on the benefit that it would potentially bring to the community.

“With the 1048 law that we have in Nebraska, the taxes go directly to the county that the wind towers are in. If Kimball or Banner County would get wind towers on a big project, basically, it could eliminate all property tax, or, depending on how the county commissioners wanted to handle it, it could be used to build a new hospital or a school. It could be a huge economic benefit if you get a huge project,” Young said.

Kimball Economic Development Director Wilson Bowling also projects that if either the ‘Big Wind’ project or a similar, smaller project being worked on by the South Kimball County Energy Wind Association ever got off the ground, it would provide a small economic boom for Kimball during the construction phase of the projects.

“Initially, that’s going to be the big thing. We’re going to have people staying in Kimball, and unless they’re coming from South Dakota or Northeast Wyoming, they have to come to Kimball to get there. We would see increased traffic, increased lodging, and increased spending in Kimball for the entirety of the project,” Bowling said.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a wind project has benefitted Kimball, even though it doesn’t lie within the city limits, according to Bowling.

“Even just when they were doing the big wind farm in Colorado, all the people that worked on that stayed in Kimball. It didn’t create a long term boom, but our hotels were filled for a year,” Bowling said.

Perhaps the initial impact of the wind projects would be the effect that it would have on city and county residents’ morale.

“I won’t say that it would be the spark that gets everything moving, but as far as morale, I think it would definitely make a difference. If we had cars parked all throughout downtown and the hotels filled up, it would be awesome,” Bowling said.

Bowling also thinks that the project by the South Kimball County Energy Wind Association, which would sit near the Cheyenne County border, could lure workers to possibly settle in Kimball.

“Who knows, you might get some of those guys that are tired of moving around all the time and building the wind turbines that may just decide to get a job at Cabela’s or Clean Harbors and stick around. It’s a long shot, but it’s definitely possible,” Bowling said.

However, at this time with the Banner County project, it would be years before the wind farm would be constructed and completed.

“There are no transmission lines anywhere close to Banner County. Until there is, we’re not going to probably even get a developer to look at us. It would take a minimum of five years to get something to happen,” Young said.

Though optimistic estimates place the project nearly half a decade from completion, Young and the rest of the Banner County Wind Energy Association plan to keep trying to get the project moving in the coming years.

“We’re not leaving any stone unturned, but still there’s nothing certainly on the near horizon that looks very interesting. We’re just going to keep plugging away. We sure don’t want to lose the opportunity if it ever arises.,” Young said.

 

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