NEAR HARRISBURG–In bone-dry Banner County, clouds of dirt drift into the sky as rumbling tractors till the sun-baked soil.
In some fields, the ground is still too dry to start planting winter wheat.
“This is the first time in my life I haven’t been able to get wheat in the ground,” said Jim Young, standing in a field that’s been in his family for 80 years. “We get very little rain. And we get a lot of wind.”
Some of the country’s best wind, in fact.
That’s why 16 years ago, wind energy companies started courting landowners up and down County Road 14 north of Kimball — a deep purple smear through the Nebraska Panhandle on wind speed maps. The sign of high-speed, reliable wind.
With about 150,000 acres leased by energy companies, this county of just 625 people stood poised to become home to as many as 300 wind turbines.
It would have been the largest wind project in the state, bringing in loads of money for the landowners, the developers, the county and local schools.
But then, an unexpected roadblock: The U.S. Air Force.
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Under the dusty fields of Banner County are dozens of nuclear missiles. Housed in military silos dug more than 100 feet into the ground, the Cold War relics lie in wait across rural America, part of the country’s nuclear defenses.
For decades, tall structures like wind turbines needed to be at least a quarter mile away from the missile silos.
But earlier this year, the military changed its policy.
Now, they said, turbines now can’t be within two nautical miles of the silos. The switch ruled out acres of land energy companies had leased from locals — and wrested a potential windfall from dozens of farmers who’d waited 16 years for the turbines to become reality.
The stalled Banner County project is unique, but it’s one more way that Nebraska struggles to harness its main renewable energy resource.
Oft-windy Nebraska ranks eighth in the country in potential wind energy, according to the federal government. The state’s wind energy output has improved markedly in recent years. But Nebraska continues to lag far behind neighbors Colorado, Kansas and Iowa, all of whom have become national leaders in wind.
The Banner County projects would have grown Nebraska’s wind capacity by 25%. It’s now unclear how many turbines will be possible because of the Air Force’s rule change.
“This would have been a big deal for a lot of farmers. And it would have been an even bigger deal for every property owner in Banner County,” Young said. “It’s just a killer. Don’t know how else to say it.”
LIVING WITH NUKES
John Jones was driving his tractor when out of nowhere, helicopters whizzed past overhead. His tractor had kicked up enough dust to trigger a nearby missile silo’s motion detectors.
Jeeps sped up and armed men jumped out to inspect the potential threat.
“I just kept farming,” Jones said.
The people of Banner County have coexisted with the missile silos since the 1960s. To keep up with Soviet nuclear technology, the U.S. began planting hundreds of missiles in the most rural parts of the country, positioning them to shoot up over the North Pole and into the Soviet Union at a moment’s notice.
Today, there are decommissioned silos scattered throughout Nebraska. But 82 silos in the Panhandle are still active and controlled 24/7 by Air Force crews.
Four hundred intercontinental ballistic missiles — ICBMs — are burrowed in the ground across northern Colorado, western Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. The 80,000-pound missiles can fly 6,000 miles in less than a half-hour and inflict damage 20 times greater than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima in World War II.
“If we ever get bombed, they say this is the first place they’re going to bomb, because of the silos that we’ve got here,” said farmer Tom May.
Every acre of May’s property sits within the two miles of a missile silo. Under the new Air Force rule, he can’t put a single wind turbine on his ground.
Wind turbine developers first came to Banner County about 16 years ago – men in polos and dress pants who held a public meeting for interested landowners at the school in Harrisburg.
Banner had what developers called “world-class wind.” Many landowners were eager – signing away their acres came with the promise of roughly $15,000 per turbine per year. The turbines were also going to pump money into the county and school system, said county officials and company executives.
“In Banner County, it would have reduced property taxes to damn near nothing,” Young said they were told.
Eventually, two companies – Invenergy and Orion Renewable Energy Group – finalized plans to put up wind turbines in Banner County.
Environmental impact studies were completed. Permits, leases and contracts were signed.
Orion had 75 to 100 turbines planned, and hoped to have a project operating by this year.
Invenergy was going to build as many as 200 turbines. The company had qualified for federal tax credits to start the project and had even poured the concrete pads that the turbines would sit upon, covering them back up with earth so farmers could use the land until construction began.
But discussions with the military starting in 2019 brought the projects to a screeching halt.
Wind turbines pose a “significant flight safety hazard,” an Air Force spokesman said in an email. Those turbines didn’t exist when the silos were built. Now that they dot the rural landscape, the Air Force said it needed to reevaluate its setback rules. The final number it settled on was two nautical miles — 2.3 miles on land — so helicopters wouldn’t crash during blizzards or storms.
The distance was necessary to keep aircrews safe during “routine daily security operations, or critical contingency response operations, while also co-existing with our fellow Americans who own and work the land around these vital facilities,” a spokesman said.
In May, military officials traveled from Wyoming’s F.E. Warren Air Force Base to break the news to landowners. On an overhead projector at Kimball’s Sagebrush Restaurant, they showed enlarged photos of what helicopter pilots see when flying near turbines in a snowstorm.
For most landowners, the news came as a gutpunch. They said they support national security and keeping service members safe. But they wonder: Is eight times as much distance necessary?
“They don’t own that land. But all of a sudden, they have the power to strike the whole thing down, telling us what we can and can’t do,” Jones said. “All we’d like to do is negotiate. 4.6 miles [diameter] is way too far, as far as I’m concerned.”
Off County Road 19, a chain link fence separates a missile silo entrance from surrounding farmland. Young parks across the road and points over a hill to a meteorological tower put in by an energy company.
There are acres of farmland between the missile silo and the tower. The tower Young is pointing to appears as a small line on the horizon, topped with a blinking red light.
“When you can land a helicopter on top of any hospital in the country, they’re saying that this is too close,” Young said, pointing to the missile silo and the distant tower. “Now you know why we’re pissed, right?”
WIND ENERGY IMPROVING, BUT STILL LAGGING
Nebraska built its first wind turbines in 1998 — two towers west of Springview. Installed by the Nebraska Public Power District, the pair were a test run for a state whose neighbor Iowa had been promoting wind energy since the early 1980s.
By 2010, Nebraska was 25th in the country at producing wind-generated power — the bottom of the pack among windy Great Plains states.
The reasons fueling the lag were uniquely Nebraskan. Nebraska is the only state served entirely by publicly owned utilities, mandated to deliver the cheapest electricity possible.
Federal tax credits for wind farms only applied to the private sector. With a smaller population, already cheap electricity and limited access to transmission lines, Nebraska lacked the market to make wind energy worthwhile.
A decade of legislation helped change that calculus. Public utilities were allowed to buy power from private wind developers. A state law diverted taxes collected from wind developers back to the county and school district — the reason the Banner wind farms may have shrunk taxes for county residents.
Now, Nebraska has enough wind turbines to generate 3,216 megawatts, moving to fifteenth in the nation.
It’s modest growth, experts said. But with new federal legislation incentivizing wind and solar energy, and the three largest Nebraska public power districts committing to going carbon neutral, wind energy in the state is expected to accelerate.
The biggest obstacle now may be Nebraskans who don’t want wind turbines in their counties.
The turbines are noisy eyesores, some say. Without federal tax credits, they aren’t necessarily a financially wise way to generate electricity, said Tony Baker, legislative aide for Sen. Tom Brewer.
In April, Otoe County Commissioners imposed a one-year moratorium on wind projects. In Gage County, officials passed restrictions that would prevent any future wind development. Since 2015, county commissioners in Nebraska have rejected or restricted wind farms 22 times, according to energy journalist Robert Bryce’s national database.
“The first thing we heard out of everyone’s mouth was how, ‘We don’t want those damn wind turbines next to our place,’” Baker said, describing visits with Brewer’s Sandhills constituents. “Wind energy tears apart the fabric of communities. You have a family that benefits from it, wants it, but everybody that neighbors them doesn’t.”
John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said pushback over wind farms has ramped up in recent years. But it’s a loud minority, he said. Eighty percent of rural Nebraskans thought more should be done to develop wind and solar energy, according to a 2015 University of Nebraska-Lincoln poll.
“It’s that NIMBY problem,” Hansen said, using the acronym meaning, “Not in My Backyard.” It’s, “‘I’m not against wind energy, I just don’t want it in my area.’ Their goal is to make sure that no project gets built, period.”
For Nebraska towns facing shrinking populations, wind turbines can mean economic opportunity, Hansen said. In Petersburg, the influx of workers after a wind farm was built led a failing grocery store to instead build a second location, he said. It’s the equivalent of a part-time job for farmers who agree to turbines.
“It’s like having an oil well on your land without all the pollution,” said Dave Aiken, a UNL ag economics professor. “You’d think it would be a no-brainer.”
In Banner County, the economic benefit would have bled into the surrounding area as well, landowners said. Crews building turbines would have bought groceries and stayed in hotels in neighboring Kimball and Scotts Bluff counties.
Now, the landowners aren’t entirely sure what’s next. Orion said the Air Force decision rules out at least half its planned turbines. It still hopes to have a project running in 2024. Invenergy declined to detail any future plans.
“This resource is just there, ready to be used,” Brady Jones, John Jones’ son, said. “How do we walk away from that? At a time when we’re passing legislation that would vastly increase investment in wind energy in this country? That energy’s got to come from somewhere.”
The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.