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Powers of power blow against farmer friendly alternative energy

(April 5, 2002 Ė CropChoice news) Ė We are reprinting the following article pertaining to energy with the permission of its author, Sally Herrin. She directs the education and communication programs for the Nebraska Farmers Union, which includes editing its newspaper Ė The Union Farmer. Ms. Herrin also writes a column for Nebraskans for Peace.

This is her most recent article.

By Sally Herrin
Nebraska Farmers Union

A report on the feasibility of wind power generation in Nebraska figured prominently in two recent pieces in the Omaha World Herald, "Energy idea not yet gone with the wind," 3/23/2002, and the unsigned lead editorial, "Tilting at Turbines," 3/27/2002. The report in question was prepared by the Nebraska Power Association, the policy organization of the stateís publicly owned utilities, as a part of the Nebraska Wind Energy Task Force project.

The Task Force included the NPA and Nebraskaís rural electric cooperatives, legislators, farmers, business, consumers, environmentalists and wind power advocates, stakeholders who began to meet in the fall of 2000 to answer questions posed by Governor Mike Johanns at a wind energy symposium in September of that year.

In effect, the Governor asked what are the roadblocks to the development of wind energy, especially for export, and what does Nebraska need to do to get over these impediments and realize its potential as "the Saudi Arabia of wind." Nebraska is the sixth windiest state in the U.S., but other less-windy states, including California, Texas, Minnesota and Iowa, have all outstripped us and enjoy the kind of economic development Nebraskaís rural communities sorely need.

The Governor must be disappointed in the NPA report. Instead of a visionary business plan for making Nebraska a leader in wind development, the NPA report portrays wind development as requiring a separate public entity--a straw man--then knocks him down. The report misses the mark by using old data and inflated cost estimates. It defines both cost and reliability too narrowly. It all but dismisses the saleable federal tax credits that are likely to pass Congress this year. And despite an express request by the Task Force, the report fails to compare wind generation for in-state use with other generation sources (using all costs, including decommissioning) on an apples-to-apples basis.

In a very real sense, though, the NPA report does answer the first part of the Governorís question. Clearly, the greatest obstacle to the development of wind generation in Nebraska is the entrenched attitude of most public utility boards.

Plain and simple, our public utilities understand their mission to be providing reliable power to the citizens of Nebraska at the lowest possible cost. Thatís the mission of the public power system under state law, and thatís what they believe their power customers want. As voters, we elect these boards. As consumers, we are their customer base. If the NPA makes the bottom line job one, itís because we do not tell them otherwise.

But a quarter century of environmental reporting in the media and environmental education in Americaís classrooms is bearing fruit. A recent deliberative poll indicates that Nebraska power consumers want clean, renewable energy, even at a price. Everybody cares. Bi-partisan support for renewable energy is building, and Congress will likely pass landmark legislation this summer that will help to level the playing field for wind and biofuels.

In his response to the NPA report, the Governor said most of the right things. He cited Nebraskaís successful ethanol program as a model for wind development, and said Nebraska must not give up on wind power. "Over time, it is going to be a good investment," he said, and asked the NPA to make sure "wind energy is still part of the landscape in this state," the Omaha World Herald reported.

The Omaha World Herald editorial called wind unpredictability "perhaps the biggest problem" to overcome, adding that wind "canít be counted on from one moment to the next." In Nebraska, nothing is more present day by day than wind. Intuitively, we all know this. Wind is not constant, but that is another matter and does not disqualify wind as a clean and, yes, reliable power source with NO fuel costs, ever. Diversifying generation sources is not redundant, itís prudent.

In the end, Nebraska will not begin to realize our wind development potential wind development until we compare, apples-to-apples, ALL the costs of generation sources. Cost comparisons have to go beyond fuel and transmission, to include environmental costs related to public health, acid rain, air, soil and water pollution, and global climate change, and decommissioning costs, which are enormous for toxic forms of generation like nuclear power and coal. As a rule, NPA members define cost to mean the price they pay for "conventional" fuel generation. Nevertheless, these other costsoften called "externalities"--are real, not just in quality of life but in actual dollars. We all pay, just not in our electric bill. We pay in our medical bills, in our insurance premiums, in Superfund clean ups and other tax bills.

Ironically, one municipal utility (an NPA member, HMPP Energy) is even now building a wind farm near Kimball, and is doing so on the economic merits, according to that utilityís own testimony before the Power Review Board. And each election cycle brings a new opportunity to seat environmentally progressive directors on our public power boards.

The NPA report makes clear that itís going to take a lot of heavy lifting on the part of ordinary people and policy makers alike to create meaningful development of wind energy in Nebraska. The Governor sure canít do it alone.