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NE Lawmakers Debate Approaches To Wind Energy

Tue, 04/30/2013 - 1:42pm
Grant Schulte, Associated Press

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — Lawmakers have advanced a bill intended to attract more wind-energy companies to Nebraska as long as residents receive some of the benefits.

The measure would make it easier for renewable energy firms to qualify for sales-tax exemptions under an existing state program — the Rural Community-Based Energy Development Act — that was created to encourage wind-energy projects.

Lawmakers gave the legislation first-round approval Monday, 33-0, even as they acknowledged that it may have to shrink to fit within the state's upcoming budget. It was the second wind-energy measure advanced within the last week; the other measure focuses on massive wind farms that would help Nebraska export more energy.

The bill "maximizes the economic development impact of wind development by encouraging the use of inputs from Nebraska businesses," said Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha, who sponsored the legislation.

It also would loosen the program's restrictions to allow Nebraska-based corporations and co-ops to participate, and extend it to solar, biomass or landfill-gas projects.

At least 25 percent of the revenue from a company's power-purchase agreement with a local energy provider would have to go to Nebraska-based owners or a local community. The current threshold is 33 percent, but Mello said lowering it would encourage more participation.

The payments from wind-farms could come in the form of leases or contracts for Nebraska companies to manufacture wind turbines and other components. The measure also would encourage developers to hire Nebraska residents for construction work.

The bill faced questions from some lawmakers, including some who asked whether the state could afford both wind-energy bills. The two bills combined would cost the state about $14 million.

"I think they both have merit," said Sen. Charlie Janssen, of Fremont. "I just get concerned when it comes time to pay for them."

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha took issue with the incentives, saying the state was "kowtowing to big-shots" by giving them tax incentives that are subsidized by all other taxpayers.

Sen. Ken Schilz said he viewed the measure as an economic-development tool for smaller communities, which would see proportionally larger job growth in his rural, western Nebraska district.

Nebraska ranks among the top five wind-producing states in the nation but 26th in the energy it could produce with the equipment currently installed, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Nebraska lags behind its neighboring states: Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado and Kansas.

Nebraska currently charges a sales tax on equipment and materials used in wind-energy projects.

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