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More wind power for Warren Buffett's BHE Renewables

BHE Renewables, a subsidiary of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Energy, recently completed the 400-MW Grande Prairie wind project in Buffett's home state of Nebraska, which increased wind capacity in the Great Plains state by nearly 50 percent.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Nebraska has taken a big leap forward in renewable power production with the commissioning of a 400-megawatt (MW) wind project constructed by BHE Renewables, a subsidiary of Berkshire Hathaway Energy and part of renowned entrepreneur and renewables supporter Warren Buffett's extensive family of business interests.

The 400-MW Grande Prairie wind project near O'Neill, Nebraska, represents a bit of a homecoming for Buffett, who has not shied away from expressing his strong support for renewable power development. At this year's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. annual meeting in Omaha, Buffett was quoted as saying, "We have a big appetite for wind and solar."

Between 2004 and 2015, Berkshire Hathaway Energy invested $17 billion in renewable power development. However, none of that investment had occurred in Buffett's home state of Nebraska until completion of the Grande Prairie wind project—the largest wind farm in the state.

Despite being the second-largest ethanol producer in the United States (next to Iowa) and ranked fourth in the United States for wind power potential, Nebraska has been slow to embrace renewable power development on a commercial scale. Prior to the Grande Prairie development, the American Wind Energy Association ranked Nebraska as 23rd in the nation in actual installed capacity. Nebraska is also one of the states that does not have a renewable portfolio standard (RPS), a legislated mandate adopted by 30 American states to achieve a certain percentage of renewable power production by a specified date.

However, public utility Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) has shown strong leadership by setting a goal of generating 30 percent of its power from renewables by 2018. Nebraska is the only American state where all power generation in the state is produced or purchased by public utilities. OPPD is among the largest in the state.

According to John Hansen, OPPD vice president of Energy Production and Marketing, the utility had already achieved 17 percent power generation from renewables prior to signing a 20-year power purchase agreement (PPA) with Grande Prairie Wind LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of BHE Renewables, for the power produced from the Grande Prairie wind project. Since coming on line in November 2016, he says that Grande Prairie has doubled OPPD's renewables power transmission to its customers. The power generated by the wind project is enough to support 120,000 Nebraska homes.

Nebraska's public utilities may be embracing renewables as a larger part of their power generation portfolios because of the state's current reliance on coal-generated power. The state's utilities currently generate about half of their power using coal.

State utilities have also operated two nuclear power plants as part of their total power production portfolio. OPPD closed one permanently in 2016. Hansen says OPPD closed it and replaced its power production potential with renewable wind power because it was cheaper to generate power from this renewable resource than continue to operate the nuclear power plant.

Alicia Knapp, BHE Renewables project manager for Grande Prairie, sees a potentially bright future for further renewable power development in Nebraska. Recent legislative changes in the state have relaxed the requirement that all power generated from renewables be sold to local public power utilities. However, this former limitation had no impact on the Grande Prairie project since OPPD had already agreed to purchase 100 percent of the power generated by this project. Knapp says OPPD was good to work with throughout the design, construction, and commissioning process.

 
  

She adds that there were many features of the Grande Prairie project that made it an attractive investment for the company, not the least of which was the quality of the overall wind resource in Nebraska, a Great Plains state where much of the topography is flat.

"The average annual wind speed at 80 meters, which is the height of the turbines at Grande Prairie, is approximately 8.5 meters per second, and this translates to a capacity factor of about 45 percent," says Knapp. "So that does make it a strong wind resource."

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that 90 percent of Nebraska offers conditions favorable for potential commercial-scale wind power generation. Complementing that opportunity for potential wind power development is a high local power consumption rate. Nebraska is among the top 10 energy consumers per capita in the United States, given its tendency for hot summers and cold winters, not to mention vibrant food processing, chemical manufacturing, and agricultural industries.

Another attractive feature of the Grande Prairie project was that it was essentially shovel-ready when BHE Renewables purchased it in 2015 from the original developer, Geronimo Energy. All of the permitting, lease agreements, and the PPA were in place.

The project, located in Holt County, covers about 120 square miles. Knapp says that the local county was very welcoming to the project. BHE Renewables worked with local government officials to ensure that all roads used by the project were improved, repaired, and maintained to Holt County standards, which was a key concern for the officials.

The project consists of 200 Vestas V110 2.0-MW turbines, with each turbine site and associated access road taking up about one-quarter of an acre. Vestas says that the Grande Prairie project was the largest single-phase project in megawatt terms that it has supplied in the U.S. It was also the company's first supply contract with BHE Renewables.

Each installation stands about 440 feet from ground level to the blade tip. In an effort to minimize the amount of land taken out of commercial agricultural production, many turbines were located on the corners of irrigated fields.

Knapp says that there was adequate capacity on local transmission lines to transport the power generated by the Grande Prairie project, and the tie-in was relatively easy, requiring the installation of an eight-mile transmission line. Western Area Power Administration built a substation to tie the transmission line to the existing transmission system.

Minnesota-based Mortenson Construction, the engineering, procurement, and contracting (EPC) company hired to build the project, was responsible for building access roads and foundations and installing the underground collection system, two substations, and the transmission line. Mortenson self-performed all of the turbine erection and high-voltage transmission (HVT) work.

 
 The Grande Prairie project, located in Holt County, covers about 120 square miles. The project consists of 200 Vestas V110 2.0-MW turbines. Vestas says that the Grande Prairie project was the largest single-phase project in megawatt terms that it has supplied in the U.S.
  

Construction began in August 2015 and was completed by the end of November 2016. Approximately $7.7 million was spent locally during construction. At peak construction, the project provided 350 temporary construction jobs and now supports 25 permanent jobs.

Improved public roads were an immediate benefit to local farmers and landowners from this wind farm construction project, as BHE Renewables improved more than 70 miles of county roads.

"Rural roads are not typically designed to handle the overweight and oversize loads that are required to build a wind farm," says Knapp. "So we expect to make a significant investment in the roads as part of any wind farm construction. In some cases with the Grande Prairie project, this involved taking two-track farm trails to full gravel roads."

In addition to benefiting from better public roads, BHE Renewables will also pay landowners approximately $2 million per year in lease payments, contribute $1.8 million in taxes annually to support local government and schools, and make an additional $80,000 annual donation to local charitable organizations. From 2017 to 2021, BHE Renewables will donate these funds to the Nebraska Community Foundation for the benefit of five affiliated funds in Holt County. These funds will benefit many local charities and provide opportunities in the community surrounding the wind farm.

As part of the construction process, BHE Renewables encountered a rather unique environmental obstacle: potential disturbance of habitat of an endangered insect called the American burying beetle. Once common throughout the central and eastern United States, it is now only found in six U.S. states, with south central Nebraska having the highest remaining population.

"I think everyone in the community became an expert on American burying beetles during construction," says Knapp. BHE Renewables worked closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and implement measures to ensure American burying beetles were cleared from areas of suitable habitat before ground disturbance occurred and to avoid ground disturbance from late fall to early spring in areas where American burying beetles were likely hibernating. This issue was identified during biological studies as the project underwent the permitting process.

"We actually had to stop work if we encountered a beetle during construction and we'd have to contact the Fish and Wildlife service to make sure we were all clear before moving forward," says Knapp. "It only occurred one time, and it wasn't an American burying beetle, but it was a good exercise."

There was some adjustment to the construction schedule as to when construction started in the spring to accommodate the beetle's hibernation season, but overall Knapp described the impact as minor thanks to the diligence of the construction team and close coordination with the Fish and Wildlife Service.

BHE Renewables continues to be a major investor in renewables, with plans for a 212-MW wind farm in Illinois and 28 individual solar garden projects in Minnesota that together will produce 96 MW of power.

 


November/December 2017