LINCOLN – Nebraska’s solar energy potential ranks among the top 15 states, but residents who lack a home with a south-facing roof, or those in a homeowners association that prohibits solar panels, have been left in the shade.
And despite fervent opposition to wind development in parts of the state like Cherry County in the Sand Hills, some communities and landowners are clamoring for wind turbines, which are a revenue stream during tight times on the farm.
A pair of proposals from State Sen. Tyson Larson of O’Neill aim to give some relief: One would establish guidelines for shared community solar programs that would permit groups of residents to participate in such projects; another would create a process for counties to be designated as “wind-friendly” through state agencies.
At a hearing of the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee on Thursday, Larson said a defined framework with rules around shared solar project financing, participation and interconnection with nearby transmission lines would benefit electricity ratepayers in Nebraska, especially in rural areas.
Shared community solar projects – those in which a number of private ratepayers buy into a larger solar-generating facility and share in its electric generation – have grown quickly in the last 12 months.
Ken Winston, a lobbyist who testified in support of the bill for the Nebraska Sierra Club, said that in Nebraska at the beginning of 2016, such facilities were capable of producing 1 megawatt of electricity. That’s enough power for about 164 homes. By the end of the year, Nebraskans had built about 6 megawatts’ worth of shared solar projects.
Kristen Gottschalk, chief lobbyist for the Nebraska Rural Electric Association, said her organization and the smaller power providers it represents in non-urban reaches of the state have concerns about how these projects are built into local power distribution infrastructure.
Plus, these kinds of projects are already taking off in Nebraska without the aid of defined legislation such as that proposed by Legislative Bill 626, Gottschalk said. She said she feared that a mandate could choke off alternative models of shared solar projects that fall out of the legislative definition.
Larson’s proposal for LB 392 would tear a page out of a 2003 law that established a framework through which counties could be awarded a “livestock-friendly” designation.
Omaha-based Bluestem Energy Solutions supported the bill, as did the Nebraska Sierra Club. But John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said he opposed this proposal just as he did the one in 2003 that let counties appeal to livestock producers with eyes on expansion.
Hansen described wind power as “a great fit for rural communities” and “a huge benefit to farmers.” Obviously, the Farmers Union supports livestock farmers, too. But individuals and communities on which economic development has a direct effect need to have a seat at the table, Hansen argued.
Larson countered that the bill is “local control at its best” because a county and its residents would be the ones to decide whether to apply for such a designation.
Larson, who owns a public relations company called 4740 Solutions, filed a potential conflict of interest statement with the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission in January that stated his firm “works directly with energy companies looking to expand renewable and nonrenewable generation in Nebraska.”
Larson said the company did research for such a company in late 2016 and asserted that the potential conflict is outweighed by the concerns of the electors who put him in office.
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