Credit: Michael Mazengarb / Creative Commons

The 423-megawatt project would be among the largest in the country, but it hinges on an interconnection deal.

NextEra Energy Resources is seeking an interconnection agreement for a massive solar project in northeastern Nebraska that, if built, would be the largest in the Midwest and among the largest in the country.

The 423-megawatt project is in the early stages of development and still hinges on how much it will cost to connect to the regional transmission grid.

“We’re in a holding pattern until we get clarification from the Southwest Power Pool,” said Phil Clement, NextEra’s project director in Nebraska. “We need to know if it’s viable.”

Sean Gallagher, vice president for state affairs for the Solar Energy Industries Association, said the project could be a sign of things to come in the region, which is increasingly attractive for large solar projects.

“You are going to see expansion of solar into more areas that haven’t seen it, because it’s cost competitive” and no longer scary to utilities, Gallagher said. “It’s becoming a standard part of (a utility company) portfolio.”

NextEra signed a lease last month with a pair of farming brothers in Pierce County, Nebraska, that will allow it to cover a 2,500-acre farm with solar panels for 30 years. The planned project is large enough to power the nearby city of Norfolk, Nebraska, population 22,000, about five times over.

NextEra has applied for an interconnection with the Southwest Power Pool. The price, which could run from a few million to a few hundred million dollars, likely will determine whether the project goes forward, Clement said. It could shrink modestly, he said, if endangered species or wetlands are found on the property.

The project seems likely to prove a good fit on the grid with the massive wind farms that have been developed in recent years and that now move power through the Southwest Power Pool, mostly at night.

“The Southwest Power Pool has a lot of wind on its grid today, a modest amount of solar and quite a bit [of solar] in the queue” awaiting an interconnection, Gallagher said. “In much of the Southwest Power Pool territory, like in much of the country, solar and wind generation output are quite complementary.”

Landowners Ryan and Aaron Zimmerman became interested in solar after the Nebraska Public Power District proposed running a 345-kilovolt line through the area.

“This kind of fell in our laps when this transmission line got constructed,” Aaron Zimmerman said. “There were a handful of proposed paths, and of course everybody was fighting it. We had this thought: ‘This might come in handy some time.’ We offered a path of least resistance. We got lucky, and it came right through our property. That’s what got the wheels turning.”

Studies found the land to be well suited for solar generation, according to Ryan Zimmerman. In addition to the transmission line, he said, the property “lays really flat and it’s all contiguous. It will be very easy for the developer to hook all this solar together and put it into the grid at one spot.”

Assuming construction proceeds, the power would be fed into the Southwest Power Pool’s grid. Before that can happen, the grid operator needs to determine whether it is capable of moving all that power.

“That’s probably the biggest hurdle,” Aaron said. Inadequate transmission capacity often interferes with renewables projects.

The Zimmermans initially pursued the ambitious project with a small solar developer a couple years ago. “Things were going great,” Ryan said, “and then we found out what it cost [to connect with SPP], and it pretty much shut it down.”

Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning heard about the obstacle and introduced the brothers to a connection at NextEra, which helped reboot the project.

The City of Norfolk, like a number of Nebraska communities, is looking into community solar, and Moenning supports both wind and solar development.

“The potential for that in our region is tremendous,” he said. “We can now create energy as efficiently as we do food, and that means new farm income, new jobs, new tax base.” He said it’s estimated the Zimmerman solar farm will bring in $2 million in additional property taxes annually if the project is completed.

“If we can make clean energy in our backyard and benefit from those things,” he said, “I’d much rather do that than haul it in on a coal train from Wyoming.”

NextEra will need to find buyers, but Clement said he thinks Nebraska’s three large public power districts will be receptive. Aaron Zimmerman said he senses a growing appetite for renewable energy in the state.

“Big corporations are looking to expand their green footprint,” Aaron said. “And then you have the Omaha Public Power District and the Nebraska Public Power District looking for the same thing.”

In March 2018, for instance, Facebook announced a large expansion of its data center located outside of Omaha.

Ryan observed that small communities across the state also have been building and exploring community solar, “some of the most rural towns in Nebraska, where you’d think everybody would hate renewables.”

Aaron said he expects solar will only gain momentum in the near future.

“This feels to me like it felt at the beginning of the ethanol boom. I think things are going to get pretty exciting in the next five years.”

Karen Uhlenhuth

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.