NORFOLK, Neb. - The growth of renewable energy in Nebraska has situated the state as a leader in America’s growing clean energy industry. Wind and solar energy are increasingly offering the type of economic development the state continues to invest in.
A panel hosted by the New Power Nebraska coalition recently examined the growing role renewable energy is playing in rural and urban development and growth opportunities in both the wind and solar energy industries. The virtual event featured local and industry leaders discussing the growth of wind and solar in Nebraska and some of the policies and initiatives that will help renewables advance even further.
Federal policies that support the growth of wind and solar in the state and the creation of good-paying jobs in rural areas were among topics addressed.
At Northeast Community College, a wind energy program offers training opportunities for future technicians to obtain jobs that continue to increase across the region. Instructor John Liewer, who has been in wind energy at Northeast since 2012, said the big difference he has seen over the past few years is how the industry has completely changed its perspective on education.
“When I started you used to see a lot of people with the old cowboy mentality, ‘We don’t need schooling; we get this done. Nobody in the industry went through school, they all came from other trades’” he said. “But, it’s really amazing the shift I’ve seen within companies from the ground up – from the sites to corporate.”
That change in thinking has translated into successful placements of Northeast’s wind energy technology graduates in the industry. In the last six years, a majority of the 45 graduates have stayed in Northeast’s 20-county service area. Liewer, a native of O’Neill, said he is surprised but pleased to see so many graduates who want to return to their hometowns to live and work.
“When I started asking students what they wanted to do and what their goals were, I was blown away in how many wanted to stay home. They wanted to settle down in their hometown and build a life.”
John Hansen, president of Nebraska Farmers Union and panel moderator, shared a similar account. He said a Northeast student who spoke at a recent workshop he attended indicated the student was from a rural area who wants to stay there. Hansen quoted the student who said, “’This is home for me. This is where I want to be. I want to try to find a way to stay in a rural community.’”
The student went on to stay he understood what most jobs in rural areas pay and then shared he was starting a job in wind energy that will pay him $55,000 annually, “which impressed everyone in the room,” Hansen said.
An additional way Northeast has been able to achieve success with the caliber of its wind energy program is through a number of partnerships with industry. That has been helped by the number of wind farms that have developed across the region in the past few years.
Nate Simpson, Northeast’s other wind energy instructor, said as a result, the industry has supplied the College with a number of components that allow students to train on equipment they will encounter once they are employed.
“The equipment that is used out on these (wind) farms is expensive and it’s tough as a college to be able to afford some of these items to train with. … “All we had were small motors and generators to work with so that’s been very important in teaching our students.”
Donated equipment includes a decommissioned two-megawatt wind turbine generator that was donated from the Grand Prairie wind farm in Holt County, in addition to a 750-kilowatt nacelle and a rotor hub. The nacelle houses all the generating components that sit at the top of a 300-foot commercial wind turbine. Another significant donation was $15,000 from Ørsted, a renewable energy company based in Denmark. It allowed Northeast to purchase equipment that the program would not have been able to purchase without the assistance.
“Things like that is what keeps us expanding and gaining traction as far as training goes here at the college level,” Simpson said.
He also said it comes back to the students who return to the area to live and work.
“These wind farms are going out in these rural communities and these students are seeing (towers) go up and they’re seeing the benefits – the tax dollars going back into the school systems, the communities. They’re the ones that really want to come to our program and get out there and do that work.”
Energy generated from wind offers many benefits to local economies with income for farmers and new tax revenue. Wind now supports 4,000 jobs across Nebraska and provides $12 million in tax revenue for state and local governments, leading to new community facilities such as schools and courthouses, improving roads and bridges, and upgrading emergency services. Additionally, it provides $14.7 million in annual land lease payments across the state. Nebraska farmers are often among landowners who benefit from the payments.
Holt County serves as a case study for the benefits of renewable energy in Nebraska. The Grand Prairie wind farm created 350 jobs during construction, with 25 permanent jobs remaining once the project was complete. It also provides nearly 40 landowners that participate in the project with more than $2 million in annual land lease payments.
“Economic development relies on the people who live and work in the communities to make decisions that affect them,” said Darby Paxton, executive director of Holt County Economic Development. “Choosing to bring wind energy to Holt County was absolutely the right decision.”
Solar power is also working right alongside wind energy to power Nebraska. There have been nearly 1,500 jobs created by the solar power industry in Nebraska, and prices for consumers have declined by 38% in the last five years. Community solar has also expanded greatly as Nebraska has enough installed solar to power the equivalent of 7,900 homes.
“Nebraska will continue to benefit from the growth of renewable energy,” said Nebraska U.S. Congressman Don Bacon, who also spoke during the discussion. “To that end, I’ve supported tax incentives for growing our wind, solar, and geothermal energy capacity and advocated for research in battery storage and carbon capture technologies. I will continue to pursue increased energy independence, cleaner energy production, and a cleaner environment.”
And future economic benefits from renewable energy appear to be strong. Hansen said wind energy, along with bio-fuels, are the two big players bringing new jobs and a new tax base to rural Nebraska with solar becoming a significant partner as well. Wind energy has brought just over $4 billion in new capital investment with 2,000-3,000 direct and indirect jobs to rural Nebraska and the additional annual local and state tax revenues from the development.
“We need more kids staying home. We need more job opportunities. We need more tax base. … This is a great economic opportunity. We already have wind, we already have sun. What are we going to do with them? Are we going to put them to good use or not,” Hansen said. “… It’s just a great economic activity that’s above and beyond the normal things of growing crops and manufacturing and the other things that power our communities.”