KEARNEY — Winds were gusting to 45 mph from the west and heavy clouds were scudding in from the east.
The weatherman sent a perfect day for wind farms, but the new solar array in northeast Kearney was still pumping out power.
“It’s at 2.8 megawatts. Even with the cloudy skies, we’re still producing,” Russell Young shouted over the wind as about 50 people turned out Monday afternoon in Kearney to dedicate Nebraska’s largest solar array.
The 53-acre solar farm cost $11 million and, on a good day, will generate 5.8 megawatts of clean, renewable electricity.
The project is a partnership between the city, Nebraska Public Power District and Chicago-based SoCore Energy, which has built hundreds of solar arrays, mostly on the roofs of large buildings.
Young, SoCore’s vice president of operations, said Kearney’s project is his company’s largest, but as the cost of building solar farms declines, he is confident SoCore will be building more like the one at Kearney’s Tech oNE Crossing.
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The system has 22,464 solar panels engineered to slant as the sun crosses the sky. The array generates about 5 percent of Kearney’s electrical demand, but it could prove an even more powerful marketing piece for the community.
The University of Nebraska at Kearney has already contracted for half of the solar power, and other customers seeking to portray a green image, or to simply do something environmentally friendly, are signing up for the rest of the capacity.
Melissa Freelend of Kearney, who sits on the NPPD Board of Directors, said she is proud of Kearney for being a solar energy leader.
“I’m glad to see more growth in renewable energy,” Freelend said. “As technology progresses, we want to make sure we have energy for a clean future.”
Lt. Gov. Mike Foley said that not so long ago that solar power was in its infancy in Nebraska, but now there is 25 megawatts capacity planned or already on tap.
Foley returned last week from a trade mission to China. He said he saw skyscrapers being built, sparkling new transportation systems and other signs the Chinese are rapidly advancing, “but their air is polluted. They are discovering the beauty of solar power.”
David Bracht of the Nebraska Energy Office said it’s exciting to see Kearney and a handful of other communities pursuing solar projects. They include Callaway, Gothenburg, Lincoln and South Sioux City.
With most of the crowd of 50 huddled against the 45-mph gusts, Bracht joked, “Wind is good for solar power because it helps the clouds go by quicker.”
Interconnection Systems of Central City built Kearney’s solar array on the Tech oNE Crossing tract near 56th Street and Antelope Avenue.
The array measures almost one-half mile long by 600 feet wide. The 22,464 solar panels are held by 4,500 metal pillars. Because of Monday’s strong winds, the panels weren’t canted. Instead, they were parallel to the ground, in what Young described as the “stowed” position to reduce the chances for wind damage.
According to the partnership agreement, SoCore will sell energy from the solar array to NPPD, which will sell the power to customers in the Kearney area. Kearney municipal leaders became interested in solar energy after narrowly losing a bid a few years ago for a $1 billion Facebook data center. An extremely low electrical rate was offered, but Facebook opted for an Iowa location because wind energy was part of the bid.