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United States

Invenergy bids to break into Nebraska

UNITED STATES: Eager to test Nebraska's new renewable-energy export law, Invenergy submitted an application for a 200MW wind project on the day the July legislation took effect.

The Chicago-based company hopes for approval by early next year, and then intends to finish the $450 million project in a north-eastern area of the state by 2012 - sending most of the power out of Nebraska and into the regional grid controlled by the Southwest Power Pool (SPP).

The new law is intended to encourage private development in the only US state where all utilities are 100% public owned. This has allowed those utilities legal rights to control Nebraska's power generation since the 1940s and stifled investment in wind and other projects by independent power producers.

But now, private developers with a power purchase agreement (PPA) of ten years or more can build projects in Nebraska as long as they export 90% of the power and pay for any new transmission needed to move the electricity. Invenergy's application in Nebraska would trigger an initial approval to proceed with development, with the understanding that Invenergy would not move towards construction until it had a PPA.

The export rule could trigger a boom in a state that, although ranked fifth-windiest, has only 152MW of wind power online. "The energy-policy steps that Nebraska has taken have been very positive for wind power," says Mark Jacobson, Invenergy's director of business development. "Nebraska and other states are seeing that they really need a market that works well inside the confines of a regional grid."

The state's efforts to exploit its wind resources have long been minimised by low coal-based electricity prices and a sparse population that creates little demand for new generation. Although that makes exporting wind power a logical solution, not everyone is convinced Invenergy's plan is a sure thing.

"They do not have a PPA, they do not have financing and they did not make clear how they are going to deal with transmission," says John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union and longtime wind advocate. "But they are a big player and we need a guinea pig to go through the process to find out whether the law works as we intended it to."

Invenergy believes financing and a PPA will be forthcoming. And Jacobson does not think scarcity of wires will be a deal breaker. "I do not see the transmission question being any different in Nebraska than it is in Kansas, Wyoming, Montana or New Mexico," he says. "There are pockets of available transmission in some areas and restricted access in others."

Jacobson says developers in Nebraska can anticipate where new lines will be built. "We are trying to look for the available transmission pockets now so that we can get projects built," he says. "At the same time, we are looking long term and saying: 'Where do I think there will be transmission in the future?'"

Still, Hansen wonders exactly where Invenergy's 200MW project will send its generation. Nebraska only recently joined the SPP, which, Hansen says, is likely to get all the wind power it requires elsewhere. "They will be filling those needs long before they get to Nebraska," he says. "I was not as encouraged in my recent discussion with the SPP as I was when we first went into the SPP."

Yet Hansen is glad that the guinea pig's name is Invenergy. "We have had an awful lot of folks say an awful lot of things that just never turned out to be the case," he says. "But when Invenergy does stuff, unlike some of the folks who have been making claims, they have a pretty impressive track record."

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