Wind energy capacity across the United States has been expanding rapidly for years, especially in Nebraska. From 2017 to 2018, the nation averaged an eight percent increase in wind energy capacity, but according to a report from the American Wind Energy Association, Nebraska saw a 39 percent growth after adding 558 megawatts of wind energy in 2018. By the end of 2018, projects aiming to add another 1,100 megawatts of power were already underway. Wind energy generated almost $8.5 million in state and local taxes, paid out more than $5 million in leases to farmers and landowners, and employed 4,000 people in the state in 2018. One out of every three Nebraskan households were powered by wind in 2019.
We know which way the wind is blowing, and it’s towards further growth in the industry as more individuals and even more corporations recognize the value in wind energy. But where did all this unprecedented growth come from?
The answer can be traced back to a number of things, including utilities setting decarbonization goals in 2019 and 2020, the crucial board election cycles of 2016, the local advocacy that won those election cycles, and even all the way back to the people of Nebraska voting for 100 percent publicly-owned utilities in the mid-19th century.
Electric Power To The People
In the 1930s, the Nebraska legislature and its constituency made a decision that would set its electric generation system apart from other states. Publicly-owned and publicly-elected utilities became law in the state when investor-owned utilities had been phased out, sold, or restructured by the 1940s.
One person in particular, George Norris, U.S. Senator and Congressman from Nebraska (1861-1944), unknowingly helped lay the foundation for what would become the most “successful avenues in the state for progress towards decarbonization” with the backdrop of the climate crisis, which is how present-day state Senator Eliot Bostar described Nebraska’s public utility system to Climate XChange.
Congressman Norris believed that electricity was a right of the people during a time when electrification started to take off and large corporate electric holding companies tied to Wall Street eventually took over one-third of the state’s utilities, and profited off of abusive corporate practices.
He was part of the development of the state’s public power system and rural electrification and the state and federal legislation that made it possible for Nebraska to be the first and only all-public power state: the Nebraska Enabling Act of 1933, the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 — which broke up corporate electricity monopolies — and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.
Today, Nebraska prides itself on widespread access to more affordable electricity through publicly-owned utilities. Nebraska’s roughly 1.8 million population in small towns and big cities collectively own 100 percent of more than 27,000 miles of power lines, enough to span from New York to Los Angeles ten times. Public ownership of the 121 utilities and 30 public power districts has maintained one of the lowest rates for electricity in the United States, and these utilities also pay around $30 million a year into state social services like public education.
However, over the last half century, the priorities of utilities have often reflected its publicly-elected officials who have been content with not jumping into new technologies, like wind energy, and being the last to close old power plants. Regardless, while traditionally slower in comparison to other states with high wind energy capacity, Nebraska has pressed on the accelerator in just the last decade and wind went from one percent of electricity generation in 2010 to 20 percent in 2019. Coal, on the other hand, has seen a graceful and tethered fall, coming down from 66 percent of electricity generation in 2000 to 64 percent in 2010 to 55 percent in 2019.
Nebraska remains one of the 27 states that has not released a climate action plan, meaning among other things, that the state legislature has not set emissions reduction targets. The state’s public utilities, however, have their own, and these priorities have been changing largely in part because leadership of the three largest public utilities in the state has moved more quickly to reduce emissions.
The Big 3 Utilities
The three largest public utilities in Nebraska are the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), and Lincoln Electric System (LES); together, they serve over 90 percent of Nebraska’s population. The board of directors of the latter two recently made landmark decisions to decarbonize Nebraska’s electricity grid. In November 2020, LES voted to set a net-zero emissions goal by 2040. The year before, in November 2019, OPPD’s board approved a goal of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.
OPPD services around 850,000 people in the southeastern part of Nebraska, almost 45 percent of the state’s population, all of whom are projected to receive completely clean energy in the next 30 years. In response to this decision, executive director of NECV, Senator Eliot Bostar, remarked, “This goal represents the kind of leadership that is historic, forward-thinking and greatly benefits not just Omaha but all Nebraskans. It’s exciting to see this board take action to make our electricity system cleaner and more affordable.”
In comparison, LES serves around 135,000 Nebraska residents in the capital city of Lincoln and nearby cities. NPPD and its smaller public power partners serve more than 600,000 all around the state, particularly in the rural parts of Nebraska.
Dave Pantos, Environmental Law and Policy professor at the University of Nebraska Omaha (UNO) told Climate XChange, “Most people do not know that in Nebraska our power companies are owned by the public, and that the people elect the Board members of these companies. Over the past five years, the Board of the Omaha Public Power District, through regular public elections, has become ‘green’ and it has voted for a net-zero carbon policy for the District.”
In the last five years, the people of Nebraska have voted for new members across the NPPD and OPPD boards to effectively flip the incumbent fossil-fuel majority into a new board majority that ushered in official decarbonization goals and comprehensive plans to achieve cleaner state electric generation.
The Election Cycles That Redirected The Boards
Omaha Public Power District
In November 2018, Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) promptly began to change its trajectory towards clean energy with the elections of Eric Williams, Janece Mollhoff, and Amanda Bogner, all of whom campaigned on clean energy policies. Each elected board member secured a 6-year term on OPPD, which signaled to some Nebraskans an entirely “new age for this power district.” These board members joined two incumbent board members, Craig Moody and Rick Yoder, who have generally supported policies for clean energy, resulting in a shift to having a clean energy-oriented board.
During their campaigns, conversations were held around rate restructuring, transitioning to more renewables, and better customer service. OPPD board member Janece Mollhoff heeded the voices of rural constituents affected by prolonged outages, as well as the voices of low-income customers disadvantaged by the monthly fixed fee that was passed in 2015 to increase from $10.25 to $30 by 2019. Board member Eric Williams was also prepared to repair the fixed fee and rate system as he was representing central Omaha, the most racially-diverse area of the city and with lower-income residents. Williams was also motivated to run by reversing the mindset to “seeing new technology as an opportunity, and not a threat. To date, I have not heard enough focus on the opportunities in the future energy market. I’ve heard mostly about the challenges,” he said.
Board member Amanda Bogner, who brought in experience working with commercial property owners to use less energy, echoed constituents’ needs in rural and lower-income areas about long-term change being more practical in shifting from fossil fuels to keep rates low. Just two years ago, OPPD still tended to skirt around hard shifts from fossil fuels. In October 2018, its previous board voted 6-2 to reduce the utility’s carbon intensity by 20 percent from 2010 levels by 2030.
One of the board members, Rick Yoder, voted against the goal because he believed that it was a way to evade transparent reporting of environmental impacts. “We need to know the amount of carbon emitted,” Yoder said. “It’s the carbon that has the impact, not the carbon intensity,” which is the amount of carbon dioxide released per another unit of measurement. The current Vice President of Energy Production at OPPD, Mary Fisher, who at the time supported the carbon intensity goal, addressed concerns like Yoder’s by saying that being expected to reduce absolute carbon dioxide emissions would not be a reliable or resilient alternative to the utility’s fossil fuel generation fleet.
This is not to say that OPPD had been completely resistant to clean energy initiatives before the new board members were elected, though. Cleaner generation was already on the upward trend. By the end of 2019, OPPD had completed construction of a 160-megawatt wind farm to seal the utility’s 40 percent carbon-free generation achievement. Additionally, OPPD has wanted to grow its solar portfolio after its offer of a 5-megawatt solar array was well-received by customers.
Nebraska Public Power District
In the 2016 board election cycle, Nebraska Public Power District’s (NPPD) 11-member board welcomed new members Melissa Freeland, Bill Hoyt and Gary Thompson, all clean energy proponents. Then, in the 2020 NPPD board elections, Wayne Williams, a major solar power advocate, and Aaron Troester, who is “open minded” about renewable energy, joined the three new renewable-friendly board members from the 2016 election cycle. Their election to the board was accompanied by 18-year board member and chair Mary Harding, who believes recent extreme weather events in the state give impetus to act on climate change.
In March 2019, eastern Nebraska experienced unprecedented flooding that caused the deaths of three Nebraskans, $1.3 billion in damage to infrastructure like roads, dams and levees, and damaged farm crops and livestock. Some board members seriously doubted climate change’s relation to the Nebraska floods, including other current NPPD board members.
Who Did The Dirty Work For Clean Energy?
The candidates that came to replace or balance the boards of directors did not work in silos to earn their seats. It was one advocacy group in particular, Nebraska Conservation Voters (NECV), that worked arduously behind the scenes leading up to the 2016 election cycle, which was the first turning point for the political landscape of conservation in Nebraska. The utilities in focus for this cycle were NPPD and OPPD.
NECV recruited candidates and more than 50 volunteers who then went out and knocked on more than 20,000 doors, made more than 15,000 live calls, and sent more than 88,000 mailers. The remarkable campaigning and canvassing efforts resulted in the successful and monumental elections of 5 NECV-backed candidates to the two boards.
Candidates were not bound to one party or the other, but rather shared the commitment to protect Nebraska’s financial and natural resources. In fact, NECV’s pro-clean energy endorsements for NPPD’s board included Independent Melissa Freeland, Republican Bill Hoyt and Democrat Gary Thompson. For OPPD, NECV backed newly-elected board members Democrat Craig Moody and Republican Rick Yoder, who both ran on strong renewable energy platforms.
After the board elections, NECV said, “We now have board directors who are concerned about environmental justice and climate change. With enough public engagement, we now have the opportunity to pass policies that will significantly benefit Nebraskans, including stronger incentives for energy efficiency, changing NPPD and OPPD’s lobbying approach to support renewable energy development, and transitioning toward clean energy.”
Before rebuilding the boards of the most important utilities in Nebraska, NECV was building up its own team. Several years ago, NECV along with its conservation education sister organization, Conservation Nebraska, were dormant. After Senator Eliot Bostar assumed the roles of executive director for both organizations in 2014, the teams grew to 25 staff and 25 AmeriCorps members who work across 25 communities in Nebraska preparing residents for the future, while continuing to preserve clean air and clean water.
They have reached around 20,000 Nebraskans solely through live educational events on water quality, soil health, pollinators, and climate change. NECV also advocates in the State Legislature to advance pro-environment bills, as well as oppose regressive and harmful bills, including LB373 in 2019, which would have effectively banned wind energy in much of Nebraska.
There’s Only Upside In Keeping Emissions Down
Omaha Public Power District
In the summer of 2019, when OPPD was still working out how much it could adhere to a goal towards more carbon-free energy resources, Ken Winston, outreach director for Interfaith Power and Light in Nebraska, was already hopeful. He said, “The fact that the OPPD [was] talking openly about climate change and environmental imperatives and carbon reduction in planning to put into place a plan to decarbonize their generation process, that’s a big deal.”
Just a year after the newest board members were elected to OPPD in 2018, which effectively created a clean energy majority on the eight-member board, the 2050 net-zero goal was a late toast to ringing in greener company operations.
OPPD aspires to reach its goal of net zero carbon production by 2050 in practical ways aside from electricity generation, such as changing its own heating and cooling practices and current fleet of vehicles, as well as carbon capture and tree planting. On the path to net-zero by 2050, OPPD is set to close three gas-fired units at its North Omaha Station and convert two units from coal to natural gas. Along with this viable approach for the utility, a “decarbonization study” in the utility’s district will engage the community for strategies on cutting its energy use and consumption.
For OPPD, with its goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions in 30 years, challenges come in the form of repurposing current facilities and embracing new or developing technologies. OPPD’s Director of Environmental and Regulatory Affairs, Russ Baker, has said that battery storage and carbon capture on natural gas or coal fired units are of interest to the utility.
OPPD’s new culture also operates on accountability. “For us, it carries all the weight of a law or regulation,” said Baker. “There was a clear expectation of continuous improvement and an accounting system to be set up to show where we are across different carbon-emitting processes across OPPD. We need to prove to them every year that we are making progress to meet that goal.”
Lincoln Electric System
In November 2020, Lincoln Electric System (LES) announced its 100 percent net decarbonization goal by 2040. While the board of LES is not exactly publicly elected, appointments to the board come from the Office of the Mayor of Lincoln. After the board of directors engaged customer opinions and participated in a year-long carbon reduction educational series, it coupled its goal with a statement: “LES acknowledges that the emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuel-fired power generating plants contribute to increased concentration levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide, which in turn contributes to climate change.”
The LES board sees its intricate connection to the goals of the municipality it serves, which announced its 80 percent net greenhouse gas reduction by 2050 in its 2021-2027 Climate Action Plan. The utility’s more ambitious 100 percent by 2040 goal effectively precedes Lincoln’s citywide goal and helps “to achieve a community goal while also maintaining high levels of electric system reliability and affordable retail electric rates to every customer in the area,” LES said to the American Public Power Association.
Currently, LES’ generation portfolio is composed of 34 percent renewable energy (hydro, solar, wind and landfill gas), 35 percent natural gas, and 31 percent coal. It touts a culture of sustainability over its 50-plus year service to the Lincoln area, a culture that is balanced with reliability and cost effectiveness.
According to the LES website, they have already increased renewable energy production from nine percent of retail sales in 2010 to 49 percent in 2020, which also reduced emissions by 42 percent. The utility’s go-to approach for achieving these goals on the customer end is through incentivized rates for customer-owned solar and virtual net metering by buying panels from the local community solar facility and through multiple energy-efficiency and demand reduction incentives and opportunities.
LES’s mission moving forward is based on “a continued commitment to maintain high electric system reliability, environmental stewardship, a fiscally responsible focus that carefully considers financial impacts to all customers-especially LES customers with low and fixed incomes-consideration of existing contractual obligations and advancements in generation, energy storage, carbon capture technologies and other emerging solutions.” LES wants to conduct electric vehicle studies, continue promoting its community solar programs through bill credits, net metering, a smart thermostat program, and even renewable energy certificates.
Nebraska Public Power District
Nuclear energy, wind, and hydropower contribute to a combined 65 percent of NPPD’s electricity generation. Board member Gary Thompson told Energy News, “Reducing our carbon footprint is inevitable. We want to develop a plan where we are moving towards reducing our carbon footprint and at the same time assuring we have reliable energy.”
NPPD has faltered in actively investing in renewables as many customers and board members fear the price tag of doing so. Board director Schrock believes it would also be drastic to replace their coal-fired plants, the largest of which has a 1,365 megawatts capacity. Since the floods of 2019, NPPD’s board approved a study on risk mitigation for the utility and reducing its carbon footprint.
The utility is currently participating in carbon capture and sequestration studies funded through the U.S. Department of Energy, and has been granted the authority to pursue the development of innovative carbon-free and carbon-neutral fuels. NPPD President and CEO Tom Kent told the American Public Power Association, “It speaks to our willingness to not just listen to and accommodate customer expectations for low-cost, reliable and sustainable energy sources, but also to take it upon ourselves to move toward further reducing our carbon footprint and adapting to this growing trend.”
Greener Grid In Nebraska, Greener Grids In The Nation
“There’s often this concern that energy transitions take a century, or at least decades,” Ryan Wiser, senior scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, optimistically commented on a new report finding that emissions from the electricity sector were 52 percent lower in 2020 than the U.S. EIA predicted in 2005. “The fact that we’ve marched halfway there is an impressive story.”
The state of Nebraska’s significant contribution to this impressive story demonstrates that great change was done in even less than a decade. The boards of the three largest, 100 percent publicly-owned utilities in Nebraska did this by embracing wind and getting serious about setting decarbonization goals. Homegrown conservation advocacy group, Nebraska Conservation Voters, did this with strategic recruitment and campaigning to elect the best champions to those boards in order to replace fossil-fuel dependent incumbents. The people of Nebraska did this and have made achieving President Joe Biden’s goal for a zero-carbon electricity grid by 2035 more possible.
Dave Pantos, UNO Professor, told Climate XChange, “I am continually inspired by the amazing climate advocacy efforts across Nebraska, especially students and young people who are forcing college administrators to actively engage in the conversation about divesting from fossil fuel companies. The fact is that the current administration in Nebraska’s state house can only be described as hostile towards environmental protection so it is especially encouraging that these young groups are resisting the status quo and demanding change.”