Developer: Solar could be key to economic development in state
McCOOK, Neb. — NPPD officially has no commitment to any solar plants near McCook, but needs “green credits” to help attract major players like Google and Amazon to the state.
It may be true that most solar panels are made in China, but companies like Parker Hannifin and Valmont have a chance to build things like the large battery containers and solar panel supports that will be needed for large solar installations proposed for McCook, Jeff Cook-Coyle, chief project development officer told a gathering at the Keystone Business Development Center Tuesday night.
Last April, Google announced plans to spend $750 million in Nebraska in connection with a data center in Papillion. NPPD has also been involved with a green-energy effort for a carbon-black and ammonia plant at Hallam, Neb.
Cook-Coyle represents Premier Energy of Grand Island, a small new company created for the McCook and other solar projects, which is proposing the George Norris McCook Solar Plant, a four-phase project that would eventually cover 1,000 acres with thousands of small sun-tracking solar panels, producing 200 megawatts of power available to be fed into the power grid, or stored in batteries the size of 100 semi-trailers.
The company is in the process of purchasing or leasing about 3,000 acres of property, about 1,000 of which will continue to produce row crops and another 1,000 of which will remain canyon or pasture land.
While the project is being developed on speculation, the $200 million or more project won’t actually be built without ironclad agreements from NPPD or another power purchaser and other parties involved, he said.
Another 1,000-acre project is being planned near the Pearson Addition north of McCook, most of which lies within the City of McCook’s zoning jurisdiction. It is proposed by Birch Creek Development, a large U.S. solar investment firm with 28 operational projects in the United States.
Brice Barton of 39North, which is contracting with Birch Creek Development, lives in Colby, Kan., and spoke with Red Willow County Commissioners at Monday’s meeting.
Tuesday night, Cook-Coyle said he welcomed study and possible changes in county zoning regulations mandated by Red Willow County commissioners Monday, who imposed a six-month moratorium on any renewable energy projects and requested review of current regulations. The commissioners also plan to hire an outside consultant for guidance on the project.
Critic Bruce Desautels of Stratton spent several minutes citing studies that showed adoption of renewable energy (including wind) has resulted in higher utility bills in places like Texas, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Hawaii and elsewhere, adding that solar power is inherently inefficient in latitudes higher than 35 degrees. (The Kansas-Nebraska border is on the 40th parallel).
He also said it was impossible to recycle the glass and silicone solar panels are made of, and “the amount of energy that goes into one solar panel is almost double what it puts out over its lifetime.
“These things are highly inefficient, grossly expensive, and that’s why it has to depend on federal subsidies because otherwise, you’d go bankrupt,” Desautels said.
Any commitment to solar could be expected after the Nebraska Public Power District completes its integrated resource plan, and would be encouraged by federal funding of 30% of the cost of the project. Cook-Coyle said NPPD could obtain energy at a 40% lower cost than from other sources, he said.
In light of the past year of disastrous rural grassfires, Cook-Coyle said the company is planning a 30-foot clear zone inside the fence and a five-foot clear zone outside the fence, as recommended by the Red Willow Western Rural Fire District.
While lithium-ion batteries can be a fire hazard, Cook-Coyle said non-toxic iron- or vanadium-based liquid batteries that can last for decades with periodic maintenance would be used. He said Parker-Hannifin, which has a plant in McCook, actually produces containers for such batteries, and Valmont produces supporting structures, but whether they would actually get the contract to do so is another question.
The plan calls for a 45-decibel limit on sound from the inverters that convert the solar panels’ DC to AC, with no houses closer than 500 feet, so the hum from the inverters is unlikely to be a problem.
Other questions concerned the cleanup of the site after it is decommissioned, and while Cook-Coyle said a bond or escrow account would be established to cover expenses for the landowner, but one of the landowners raised the question of whether that would begin at year 5 as he had been told, or year 10 as Cook-Coyle expected.
A number of details remain to be worked out, whether the Premier Energy or Birch Creek Development projects or both advance, including the county’s conditional use permit, in-lieu of taxes payments and many other details.