Breezy Nebraska Could Also Be a Solar Powerhouse
By: Annelise Christen
Light glides over the Nebraska prairie, flushing the darkness from its path to reveal the manifestation of Cliff Mesner’s dream.
The sun strikes dark, rectangular panels floating above what used to be a gravel lot. Electrons fire across millions of circuits and shoot off to the grid, lighting Central City homes.
Mesner, the town’s attorney at the time, had simply wanted to reduce his carbon footprint by adding solar panels to his home. But his ambition proved larger than his rooftop, and with the help of other town officials he eventually built this field of 800 panels.
“I really didn’t think anything about it at all,” Mesner said. “But then the TV cameras and the newspapers showed up. And turns out it was the biggest array in the state, about half the solar in the state at the time. And then pretty soon other communities were calling saying, can you come do solar here?”
Most Nebraskans are likely familiar with the state’s wind potential: ruined umbrellas and overturned garbage cans testify to that. But the state also has significant untapped solar resources that advocates say could make Nebraska a key to efforts in the U.S. to fight climate change.
One recent study, for example, said Nebraska is a particularly attractive site for investment because the solar developed here would likely replace coal power, which accounted for 55% of in-state electricity generation in 2019.
“Although renewable energy itself is emissions-free, where such projects get built greatly influences their true net impact on overall grid emissions — because it matters what existing generation they’re displacing,” the study, which was written by solar-power consultancies.
Global temperature increases are already impacting Nebraska’s public health, crops, wildlife, and water supply. And climate change’s effects in the decades to come will only become more severe. A 2014 climate study by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln noted that crop yields could fall by 50% in some places over the next half-century.
One popular method of solar development to emerge in the past decade is known as community solar. In a program like Central City’s development, Nebraskans who want to join the fight against climate change can subscribe to a solar development even if they live in apartment complexes or otherwise can’t add panels to their roofs.
“It’s really the logical way to do it, because the cost of putting a large solar array out is half the cost per kilowatt hour of putting it up on a rooftop or in an individual, small array,” said Mesner, who now helps build solar projects in the state through his company Mesner Development Co. “So, it turns out that not only does it make more sense environmentally, it’s much cheaper.”
Solar power, though it remains a small slice of the overall national energy mix, is growing at a fast clip. In the last decade, solar energy in the US has an average growth rate of nearly 50%, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group.
There are over 85 gigawatts of solar capacity installed throughout the US, which is enough to power 16 million homes. Much more will be needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions. A 2016 Energy Department study estimated that using solar power for about 27% of U.S. electricity generation, a goal of the Obama administration’s SunShot initiative, would cut greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 20%.
Solar now accounts for less than 2% of total electricity generation. Most of that power is produced outside of the Midwest. More than 85% of solar development is concentrated in 10 states, and Nebraska is not among them. Nebraska obtains less than 1% of its power from solar energy. There are around 62 megawatts of solar installed in Nebraska, or enough to power nearly 8,000 homes in a state of over 600,000 households.
Several Nebraska communities are working hard to close the gap. Projections over the next five years show solar in state growing to roughly 155 megawatts, enough to power just under 39,000 homes.
It would be significantly more than that if the Salt Creek Solar Project, a 230-megawatt utility-scale solar farm on roughly 1,100 acres of corn and soybean fields east of Lincoln, moves forward. County officials have approved the plan, but Ranger Power, the developer, is still looking for a buyer of the power.
Ruth Thompson has 100 panels on her farm. She agreed to a 40-year lease that will start once construction begins, which Ranger Power estimates could happen by 2023. She sees Salt Creek as beneficial both to the environment and the local economy, as it could ease the financial strain of agriculture and shifting commodity markets.
“There are many years we really don’t make a lot of profit,” Thompson said. “This is another way for farmers to make income without really having to deal with the weather and prices and trade deals and all of the kind of uncertainty.”
Proponents say Lancaster County will benefit as well. Solar projects typically hire as many as 300 workers during construction, usually from a pool of local applicants. In addition, Salt Creek is estimated to pay $800,000 annually in taxes to the county.
Thompson likes how the power it produces will be homegrown. Nebraska imports its coal from Wyoming.
“We’re a public power state. Why shouldn’t we produce our own?” Thompson says. “I mean, that just furthers the goal of being public power, or invest in it ourselves and produce it ourselves.”
Colin Snow, the Salt Creek manager for Ranger Power, said solar projects can be a marketing tool for communities.
“A project like this really does send a message, basically from the community to kind of a larger economic world saying, ‘We’re open for development, and we value these things that you value,’” Snow said. “So, it’s a nice invitation to other businesses.”
But not everyone is a fan.
“I was fine with a solar farm,” said Shana Gerdes, a landowner who lives near the proposed solar farm. “Just not one encapsulating my neighborhood.”
Gerdes is concerned about falling property values.
Beyond land-use issues, solar faces another big obstacle. It doesn’t work at night and is unpredictable during the day.
“You look at things like solar and wind, they’re great. No fuel costs, good for the environment,” said Scott Benson, manager for resource and transmission planning at Lincoln Electric System. “What’s their one drawback? They’re not what we call dispatchable. I can’t turn them on and off when I want. Mother Nature decides that.”
Broader solar adoption may depend on advances in battery technology, an effort one Nebraska community is also working to develop. Solar batteries, which can store power for days when the sun doesn’t shine, come with a hefty price tag. But costs are coming down and the efficiency is improving.
An 8.5-megawatt solar farm being developed in Norfolk by the Nebraska Public Power District and three companies operating under the umbrella of NSolar, including Cliff Mesner’s solar development company, includes a 1-megawatt battery. The farm will be built on roughly 75 acres of land on the outskirts of the city.
Mayor Josh Moenning says he wants Norfolk to be the renewable energy capital of Nebraska. According to Moenning, the costs of solar energy are lower than those of the conventional wholesale generation mix that the city currently purchases from its utility, the Nebraska Public Power District.
“It makes all the sense in the world to me, for us to make energy in our own backyard, rather than hauling it in on a coal train,” he said. “And we think it’s important because renewable energy is now one of the cheapest forms of electricity generation. And northeast Nebraska has been a hotbed of renewable generation activity.”
The project will produce clean energy for around 1,200 homes while helping lower energy bills for Norfolk’s citizens and contributing to the recent growth of the local economy.
“I’m proud to have that in my hometown because I think it’s the right thing to do environmentally,” Moenning said. “It has benefits environmentally, socially, and economically. And it’s really a market opportunity for our region in the new economy.”
Some solar advocates say the fact that Nebraska has 166 publicly owned utilities operating in the state has complicated efforts to expand solar power. Some public power officials are reluctant to abandon fossil fuel plants that their districts have already paid for and like the reliability coal offers.
“They have, basically, restrained the growth of solar,” says Michael Shonka, president of Solar Heat & Electric.
But some utilities are charging ahead and implementing programs to help bring solar into the mainstream in Nebraska. A community solar program implemented by Lincoln Electric System allows its customers to support solar power without having to install panels on their property.
In 2016, LES installed the 5-megawatt solar facility in northwest Lincoln. It was the first utility-scale solar installation in Nebraska. A utility-scale solar facility generates solar energy and delivers it to the grid while supplying the utility with energy.
Customers who sign up for the program pay up to $620 to purchase a “virtual” solar panel, rather than the $20,000 it takes to buy a residential solar system. The customer receives a monthly credit to their bill based on the amount of energy the panels generate.
LES’s Benson believes it is an affordable and beneficial way for anyone to get involved in solar. The program is part of an initiative to maintain a diverse generation portfolio and support renewable energy. LES has set a goal of net-zero emissions by 2040.
Jeff Berggren, Nebraska program manager for GenPro Energy Solutions, a solar company with an office in Central City, said that around three to four years ago, Nebraska utilities became more open toward solar energy.
He says one benefit of public-power is that the boards that run the utilities are more responsive to the communities they serve.
“Surprisingly, it used to be they just wouldn’t even talk to us,” Berggren said. “Now they realize they need to talk to us. And its customer driven. The customers are demanding it.”