09 March 2017

Hearing Held on Moratorium on Turbines in the Sandhills

It was country boots versus city suits during the hearing on legislative bill 504 at the Nebraska state capitol on March 1st.

The natural resources committee held a hearing on a bill introduced by senator Tom Brewer, who represents the 43rd district. The legislation would establish a two-year moratorium on development of industrial wind turbines within the sandhills, and that a study of wind turbines impacts or influences occur during this period.

Senator Brewer opened the hearing. The primary reason for the moratorium would be to have a “time-out” to “give everyone a voice and a chance to be heard.” Turbine proposals, especially in Cherry county have been obviously contentious, resulting in families divided and friend and neighbor disagreements. Tax subsidies were also mentioned as developers are rushing to build before the end of federal tax subsidies in a few years. There is a need to balance the rights of wind companies with those of land owners and other interested parties, he said.

Proponents urging that the bill be moved out of the committee for consideration by the full legislature were primarily ranchland residents, with many having a personal stake in what will happen within the sandhills if turbine facilities and associated power lines get built.

There were Cherry county ranchers from the Goose Creek country and the Brownlee vicinity. Others also drove hundreds of miles from the Thedford area. A ranchwife from north of Burwell came to express her concern about turbines and the tactics of the Nebraska Public Power District associated with the construction of the proposed R-Project industrial power line. Other concerned citizens came from Valentine, Wood Lake and Taylor, as well as a former state senator from North Platte, from a ranch dating to 1878.

These many people took time out of their schedule – during the busy calving season – to drive many miles to Lincoln because of what they and many others appreciate about the Sand Hills. It is a common consensus that the region is cattle country, not wind turbine country. A common theme was that the sandhills are a unique place that deserves special protection.

There was a comment about the region being a “national natural wonder” and a “magical and amazing place.” Ann Manning-Warren, drove from the Goose creek country of southeast Cherry county. She said “there is no other place in the world quite like the sandhills.” Her ranch, like many others, represent generations of ranch families that have conserved the grassland range and other unique land features.

Fourth generation rancher Craig Miles said the positions on wind turbine facility development was the “difference between cowboys and paid suits.” His testimony conveyed a sense of place from prominent landmark, Hackberry Point, where the view towards the North Loup River, the wind among the grass and the sound of the wild birds can be enjoyed. The “wisdom behind LB 504 is taking the high road.”

Also present was a spokesman for the Lincoln-based Wachiska chapter of the National Audubon Society, a group that has for many years worked to conserve tracts of tall-grass prairie in southeast Nebraska. Bruce Kennedy has also been involved in getting the Niobrara River designated as a national scenic river.

The Nebraska Sierra Club spokesman George Cunningham said that though the group are proponents of “sustainable alternative energy systems” there is “no need for energy developments in native grasslands.” They should be on converted land.

The massive development of wind turbine facilities in Antelope county was indicated by Dean Smith, a farmer from near Brunswick. He indicated that 50% of the county has easements that allow wind turbine placement, with about one-half of that property owners being absentee landowners. There are already 220 industrial turbines within the county, with another 168 proposed. His three primary concerns are viewscape, timely collection of taxes and wind turbine syndrome. A tactic used by developers is that once there is one turbine, why not put in others, he said.

Developers are now intent on placing industrial development on land in the vicinity of ranches cared for by multiple generations of families. Within Cherry county, there is the Kilgore project and the newly identified Cascade project that would place 147 turbines on land along the Cherry county line, north of Thedford along Highway 83.

Opponents were most notably represented by lawyers and lobbyists for wind energy development companies. The men in suits were paid to talk.

They included someone from Berkshire-Hathaway Energy, or was it BSH Renewables, the current owner and operator of the Grande Prairie turbine facility in northern Holt county. This company is looking for additional opportunities to purchase wind turbine developments. The Sand Hills is one of their top three locales for future development, lawyer Alan Butler said.

Invenergy, the developer of turbine facilities in Boone and Antelope counties, had representative Joshua Framel proclaim that their projects “maximize benefits with minimal impacts.”

A lawyer from an Omaha law firm said the legislation is “unwarranted and will dangerously chill opportunities for wind development in Nebraska.” Mike Degan also said that there is an advantage to placing turbines in the sandhills because there is “less residential development so turbines could be placed in remote areas.”

Also speaking in opposition to LB 504 was Kathy Torpy of The Nature Conservancy. This group is pro-wind and wants more turbines in Nebraska, and she asked for “thoughtful and well done placement of turbines” with a request for meetings to be held within the sandhills on this issue. She also said that “ecologically sensitive areas” need to be protected and asked – for some reason not indicated – that the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission lead the study.

The Center for Rural Affairs was also opposed to the legislative bill, since it was “focused on removal of local communities to regulate wind turbines.” Spokesman Lucas Nelsen also said that the boundary indicated with the legislative bill needs further consideration.

Bree DeNaeyer secretary of Cherry County Wind, L.L.C. also spoke, stating the need to “dispense with 504.” Her husband is a county commissioner operating a ranch on land owned by his mother, an enrolled member of the group. Her opinion was that the state legislation would conflict with local zoning regulations and impinge on private property rights. Rancher Dave Hamilton, also an enrolled member of Cherry County Wind, said wind turbines would mean economic development that would “ripple down main streets” and the bill was a “stall tactic.”

Bluestem Energy Solutions, an Omaha-based company, was well represented. They have plans – one which was rejected by the Cherry county commissioners – for a turbine facility south of Kilgore, and the Cascade project along Highway 83 at the Cherry county line, north of Thedford.

Testimony was also expressed by a wind coalition lobbyist that works to remove barriers to wind development wherever.

Other groups opposed to the bill were the Saline County Wind Association (comes down to the not in my backyard opinion), the Nebraska League of Conservation Voters (wind is a resource that needs to be taken advantage of, just like land and water), the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce and Nebraska Farmer’s Union (the bill is “heavy-handed” and anti-business, anti-property rights and anti-local control).

There were also two speakers with a neutral position. Ken Winston of Bold Alliance asked that amendments be added to the bill to address pipelines, injection wells and powerlines. A representative of the Nebraska Association of County Officials also spoke.

Everyone had a chance to present their representative testimony, with nearly every speaker limited to three minutes. Letters that had been sent in were also indicated.

Sen. Brewer indicated his view upon making comments at the end of the hearing. “This is an issue that effects many. Bring this legislation to the floor … to let the committee decide is ridiculous. Counties don’t know what will be right or what will be wrong.” He noted how some wind energy developers “put a gun to our head” as they said “give us wind or we will go elsewhere.” This threat was not acceptable to Sen. Brewer, who also said it was “wrong-headed and ridiculous to bring in turbines because there are already roads and railroad tracks.”

According to the clerk of the hearing committee, there were 23 people that testified in favor of the legislation, with 40 letters received that indicated the same view. Opponents were represented by 16 speakers, with 20 letters received.

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