By Gordon Hopkins
A series of meetings have been held over the past year by various local government entities to discuss possible changes to wind farm regulations. Some of those meetings have been contentious. Jefferson County Commissioners have enacted a moratorium on wind farm permits until those changes are finalized.
There are a number of complex issues to be considered. One of those issues is the relationship between the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), Norris Public Power District and wind energy providers.
Demand for Renewable Energy
NextEra Energy Resources currently owns and operates one wind farm in Jefferson County, Steele Flats, and is looking to build another, Big Blue Wind.
At a meeting of the Jefferson County Commissioners on Tuesday, March 15 of this year, Brian Weishahn, a member of Jefferson County Wind Watchers, said, “The factory over in Hallam is demanding renewable energy. And so they come into Nebraska and say, hey, you need to provide us with renewable energy.”
Weishahn was referring to Monolith Nebraska LLC, with headquarters in Lincoln.
“But the thing of it is,” said Weishahn. “They’re (NextEra) part owners of that company. So, they’re part owners of the company that says, hey, you need to hire us to build these wind farms. So, they pay their electric bill to NPPD. NPPD buys the power that’s renewable since they are demanding it from NextEra, who’s building these wind farms. Basically, the money goes in a circle. That’s interesting.”
David Levy, an attorney for Baird Holm LLP, which represents NextEra, was present at that meeting. He explained, “Monolith is a company that makes something called carbon black, which is used in my pen, ink, your tires, everything, and they use a lot of electricity to make that.
Monolith’s business advantage is that they figured out a process to make carbon black that is cheaper and less environmentally damaging. And part of their goal is sustainability. So, it was Monolith who said; NPPD, we’ll build this plant, we’ll become a big economic development driver, your biggest customer, NPPD. But you have to provide us with 100 percent renewable energy. So that’s the driver there. That’s the background. I think it’s important to correct the record.”
Levy added, “And they said they would go to another state if NPPD could not do that. That’s the type of demand you’re seeing from corporate America, from companies of all kinds, for renewable energy.”
Levy also confirmed that NextEra is a part owner of Monolith, “NextEra is a minority owner in Monolith. They have no guarantee that their renewable energy will sell to Monolith.”
“NPPD put out their public company, they put out a request for proposals, that is still open. It could be any wind developer,” said Levy.
In 2021, NextEra joined a consortium of investors to invest in Monolith. The amount NextEra invested is unknown. FJN has reached out to NextEra for more information.
Nebraska Public Power District
Nebraska is unique in that it is the only state where electricity is supplied to consumers exclusively by customer-owned, not-for-profit entities, including public power districts, cooperatives, and municipalities.
There are a number of wind and solar generation facilities in Nebraska that are owned by private companies and can be categorized as independent power producers. The state allows private companies to developed renewable energy generation facilities, subject to certain requirements. However, they are not allowed to sell electricity at retail in the state. Instead, NPPD purchases that power and, in turn, sells the power to local power distributors, such as Norris Public Power.
Matthew Jones, project developer for NextEra Energy Resources, attended a meeting of the Jansen Village Board at the Legion Hall on Tuesday, April 5. Jones took the opportunity to explain NextEra’s relationship NPPD.
“So, everything that you generate has to go through public power. So, they would do what’s called an RFP process, where they put out RFP, or Request for Proposals, for wind projects. So, we essentially would have a project that we feel might suit their needs for their portfolio, and then they select this and then we sell it to them,” said Jones. “And they would have a customer on their end that would be wanting the power.”
Jones also noted, “But the transmission line, everything, we build it to their specs, and then they take it. That’s just how public power works in Nebraska, which is interesting. It’s good for the state of Nebraska. Those are hundreds of millions of dollars in certain cases, transmission lines that you build and say, ‘Here you go, NPPD. This is yours now.’”
Who Buys Wind Energy
Like any highly controversial issue, there is a great deal of information about wind energy available online. There is also a great deal of disinformation and misinformation. Sometimes, information may be misleading not because it is factually incorrect but because it is incomplete or presented without context. That does not mean such information is deliberately misleading.
On April 10, this email from Bruce Vitosh, General Manager and CEO and of Norris Public Power District, was posted by Jenna Wietzki on the Jefferson County Wind Watchers’ Facebook page:
“Norris Public Power District has an all-requirements wholesale power agreement with Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), which means that NPPD is responsible for fulfilling Norris’ power needs through their generation resources. Norris is responsible for distributing the power from NPPD to our customers. Within the agreement with NPPD, Norris is allowed to purchase a small portion of our power requirements from local renewable energy resources. Norris does not currently purchase power from any local renewable energy resources. Norris is pursuing solar generation that may be located on small tracts of land of less than ten acres. Norris is not pursuing wind generation for various reasons, including the concerns that you have raised.
“NPPD has a diverse generation mix that is beneficial to its wholesale customers, including Norris customers. NPPD’s generation portfolio includes various fuel types, including coal, nuclear, natural gas, renewables, oil and other. NPPD and Norris are focused on providing power to our customers that is safe, reliable, low cost and done so in a responsible manner. Neither NPPD nor Norris purchases generation output from the Milligan 1 Wind Project. Norris has no involvement in the siting of large wind turbines that are constructed in our service area.”
This was presented on Facebook with no context beyond calling it a, “Statement from Norris Public Power.” The “concerns that you have raised” were not specified in the post.
According to Vitosh, this was in response to a customer email. FJN has not seen the original email and does not know what questions were asked. Members of the Jefferson County Wind Watchers group have engaged an attorney, Scott Gropp of Gropp Law and Mediation, LLC, a law firm based out of Wilber, and they have advised FJN to send all queries to Gropp. FJN has asked Gropp what questions were asked or for additional context about the email but have not received a response as of press time.
FJN contacted Vitosh, who did provide further clarification, “Norris Public Power District purchases its power from Nebraska Public Power District. We are separate organizations. Sometimes, the public confuses NPPD (Nebraska Public Power District) with Norris Public Power District.”
NPPD provides a list on their website of wind energy producers from which they purchase electricity throughout Nebraska. One of those is Steele Flats in Diller, which is owned and operated by NextEra Energy Resources.
“The Nebraska Public Power District Board of Directors and management team make decisions regarding their generation resources. You are correct in that Nebraska Public Power District purchases power from the Steele Flats Wind Farm. The decision to purchase power from the Steele Flats Wind Farm was made by Nebraska Public Power District. The Norris Public Power District Board of Directors and management team were not involved in that decision,” Vitosh explained. “For further clarification, when power is generated and delivered to the electric grid, any number of customers connected to the grid may consume the power. The Steele Flats Wind Farm generation can be and is consumed by consumers outside of Gage and Jefferson Counties.”
So, while Norris Public Power does not purchase local wind energy directly, NPPD does, and Norris Public Power purchases power from NPPD.
In addition to Steele Flats, NPPD purchases electricity from seven other wind farms throughout Nebraska: Ainsworth Wind Energy Facility, Broken Bow 1 & 2, Crofton Bluffs, Elkhorn Ridge, Laredo Ridge and Springview II.
As noted by Vitosh, the Milligan 1 Wind Project, which is situated in Saline County, is not one of those. Milligan 1 is not a NextEra facility.
Commissioners indicated in prior meetings that a final decision is pending recommendations from the Planning and Zoning Committee. There is no set date for further Planning and Zoning meetings at this time.