RURAL RANDOLPH — Standing tall here among the crops and pastures of western Wayne County may be the future of energy production in Nebraska.
The farmlands here near Randolph are the site of the Sholes Wind Energy Center, a 76-square-mile wind farm with 71 turbines that will generate 160 megawatts when the facility comes online later this year.
Elected officials, including Lt. Gov. Mike Foley and Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning, joined media and various environmental and agricultural organizations and businesses for a firsthand look at the wind farm Thursday afternoon.
Foley was in attendance to see how projects like the Sholes Wind Energy Center could have an impact on Nebraska in the future.
“Nebraska, as we all know, is a windy place, and it’s a great resource,” Foley said. “So there’s a lot of curiosity about wind technology, and I don’t know a lot about wind technology, so I jumped at the chance to come learn more about what’s happening in this industry.”
Moenning, who also serves as the director of the wind energy group New Power Nebraska, said Nebraska ranks among the highest states in wind energy potential but lacks in wind energy production, and the state would immensely benefit from growing the wind industry.
“In Nebraska, we’ve been kind of slow to adapt to the industry, but it’s growing,” Moenning said. “We have a huge resource, and from my perspective, wind energy offers a lot of benefits to local economies with new jobs, new farm income and new tax revenue.”
Wind energy projects create a need for highly skilled technicians to manage the turbines, and energy developers in Nebraska don’t have to look far to find them, as Northeast Community College has the state’s only wind energy technician program.
NextEra Energy Recourses, the company that owns and operates the wind farm, not only has hired three Northeast graduates at the Sholes wind farm already, it also has donated equipment to Northeast to help facilitate the next generation of technicians.
Phil Clement, a project director for NextEra, said the work with Northeast has proven to be a good partnership.
“This is an opportunity for people in rural Nebraska to make a good living, to be where they grew up,” Clement said.
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, agreed that the opportunities provided by wind farms and renewable energy are a boon for rural Nebraska.
“A lot of rural kids want to stay in rural communities, but they don’t have the opportunity to do it,” Hansen said. “These are jobs that pay $50,000 to $60,000 with benefits. In most rural towns, you can usually count the numbers of those kinds of jobs on one hand.”
Wind projects also create the need for a multitude of other jobs: Contractors are needed to help improve infrastructure around the rural wind farms, and special transportation and construction equipment are needed to move and install the turbines.
Clement said Sholes created about 300 jobs at the site.
And Moenning said the ripple effect of those new jobs spread all the way to Norfolk, as sales tax revenue rose dramatically last summer when Sholes and another wind farm in Antelope County were under construction.
Additionally, the wind farms also benefit the landowners whose land is used for the turbines, as they sign easements and collect payments from the energy companies.
“Any time you can have essentially a part-time job by having a turbine on your farm is a good thing,” Hansen said.
Hansen also praised the wind farm as a step forward for renewable and clean sources of energy.
“Every single day we go forward, the fact that it doesn’t emit carbon becomes more and more important,” Hansen said. “It’s exciting to be a part of an industry that is being a responsible part of the future and making the future better.”
Moenning said nonrenewable fuels also are beginning to lose their economic advantage over renewable sources, as well.
“You see a lot of coal plants closing, because they’re not economical anymore,” he said.
Wind farms also have generated concerns from farmers across the state, but Hansen said throughout Nebraska, farmers have been treated well and have benefited from wind projects on their land.
“We’re making sure we’re all being good neighbors,” Hansen said. “The fact you have to remember is that there are no wind turbines in the state on a landowner’s property that the landowner didn’t want there and didn’t sign an easement for.”
The Sholes wind farm is owned and operated by NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company that is one of the leaders of wind and solar production in the world.
The power generated will be sold to Omaha Public Power District while NextEra continues to operate the facility, as part of a 20-year agreement.
The project was initially slated to come online in July, but damage to infrastructure caused by flooding this spring caused delays. Clement said the facility is waiting on construction to a substation where the power will be directed, then the station may begin tests and turning on the turbines. He said the wind farm should be fully operational by November.