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NPPD explores wind power cost

(Sunday, Jan. 12, 2003 -- CropChoice news) -- Nancy Gaarder, Omaha World-Herald, COLUMBUS, Neb. - Everybody talks about the wind in Nebraska, and now it looks like the state's largest utility is poised to take genuine advantage of it.

The Nebraska Public Power District has begun exploring the costs of a proposal that could increase by as much as 33 times the amount of electricity it generates from wind. And while nothing is guaranteed, if everything goes well, the utility could be generating this new wind power next spring.

"That's fabulous," said Sally Herrin, a proponent of wind power in Nebraska and member of the governor's Wind Energy Task Force.

Nebraska has been ranked the sixth windiest state in the nation but has lagged far behind its less windy neighbors in tapping that resource. Nebraska's utilities have shied away from wind farms because of the cost and difficulty getting the electricity to urban areas.

"This is really a significant step for us," said Gary Thompson, who has been pushing for wind power during his 10 years on the NPPD board. "It's going to give us a real handle on the potential for wind power in Nebraska."

Thompson said the right factors have come together to make it possible for NPPD to move forward. Technological advancements are making wind power more affordable. But just as important, NPPD has found a site that is both very windy and near transmission lines. The utility declined to say where the site is.

Specifically, NPPD will be doing two things:

• Testing the market for the sale of wind power "green tags" to other utilities. Green tags are an innovative way of financing renewable energy and are similar to the pollution credits that utilities successfully have traded in the past.

• Evaluating the cost of building a small wind farm, anything from 5 to 50 megawatts. Currently, NPPD generates 1.5 megawatts of electricity from two turbines near Springview, Neb.

Doug Mollet, renewable energy manager for NPPD, said his team expects to have concrete information to the board by this summer.

Mollet said this effort is the culmination of several years of work by NPPD to move prudently but seriously into wind power.

"Our strategy has always been to look at wind as a viable source," he said. "Environmental stewardship is clearly at the top of our list."

The green tags would overcome a hurdle to wind power in Nebraska - that the windiest sites are so remote it is cost-prohibitive to ship the electricity to urban areas. Instead of actually selling the electricity generated by wind, NPPD would be selling other utilities credit for that electricity.

The reasons that a utility would be motivated to buy a credit would vary. Generally speaking, a utility probably would buy a credit if it was under a mandate to generate renewable energy but found it more cost-effective to buy the credit from NPPD rather than build its own wind turbine. This could apply to a utility, for example, located somewhere that wasn't very windy.

Originally, NPPD had planned to limit its possible wind power expansion to about 5 megawatts, Mollet said. That it is considering up to 10 times that amount is a reflection of how promising the possibilities are.

Currently, the state's three major utilities offer wind power on a very limited or experimental basis. The largest wind farm in Nebraska is a 10.5-megawatt facility near Kimball that is run by the Municipal Energy Agency.

Should NPPD expand to 50 megawatts, it won't be developing what is considered a major wind farm. But, Thompson said, this remains the best news he has seen on wind power - "by a long, long, long way."