A Clean Energy Roadmap for Nebraska

by Duane Hovorka
Executive Director
Nebraska Wildlife Federation

At the Nebraskans for Peace Annual Peace Conference in Grand Island in October, speaker after speaker talked about climate change and the need to move Nebraska (and our world) away from fossil fuels like coal and toward clean energy solutions like solar, wind and energy efficiency.

Getting to a clean energy future won’t be easy, and it won’t be automatic. It will take a careful strategy and a commitment to change. It will require the strength to stand up to entrenched interests who now reap the financial rewards of an energy system that is costing lives through asthma and heart disease, pumping jobs and investment out of our state, destroying wildlife habitat, and reshaping the climate.

Fortunately, getting to that clean energy future doesn’t have to mean economic disaster and loss of jobs. It turns out that a clean energy future that is good for our lungs, our land and our atmosphere is also good for Nebraska’s economy and for local jobs.

However, the path we are now on won’t get us there. Nebraskans need a new vision for the clean energy future that could be—and a new roadmap for getting us there.

1. Stop Digging

When you are in a hole and trying to get out, the first rule is: stop digging!

Over the decades, as the use of electricity has grown, Nebraska’s publicly owned utilities have had to build more and more power plants to meet the demand. The annual growth has slowed—from more than 9 percent per year in the 1960s to less than 3 three percent in the 1990s and less than 2 percent from 2000 to 2010—but Nebraskans energy appetite is still increasing.

Meeting this increased customer demand with an ever-increasing supply has spawned a power generation infrastructure that today can produce more than 8,000 MegaWatts (MW) of electricity. That expanded generation capacity, however, is emitting more greenhouse gases, Mercury and other heavy metals, cancer-causing particulates, and sulfur dioxide and other acids into the air we breathe each year.

At the 1.3 percent annual growth in electric demand that Nebraska utilities expect in coming years, we are looking at the need to add the equivalent of one new 600 MW coal-fired power plant every six years in our state.

In short, we are digging our hole deeper.

A huge part of the electricity we use is wasted, to heat and cool drafty old houses, run old inefficient appliances and electric motors, and power outdated lights. With cost-effective investments in weatherizing buildings and more efficient technologies, our customer-owned public power districts could cap the growth in energy use without sacrificing productivity or comfort.

That would allow our utilities to avoid building and running expensive new power plants, saving Nebraska customer-owners billions of dollars on our electric bills over the coming years. This is not happening now—at least on the scale needed to flatten the growth in demand. But it could if we asked for it, and the benefits for our state would be tremendous.

Nebraska currently has more power plant capacity in place than it actually needs to meet current demands. If we can flatten the growth in our demand to zero, then we could actually retire at least one of the old coal-fired power plants that are nearing the end of their useful life—right now.

The potential is actually there to go well beyond just flattening our growth in electricity demand. With energy efficiency investments at a power plant scale and carefully designed strategies, our publicly owned and operated power districts could actually help customers reduce Nebraska’s overall use of electricity—keeping hundreds of millions of dollars in our local economies while reducing the pollution in our air and water.

2. Renewables Are Ready

While Nebraska has no coal and very little oil or natural gas, it has abundant supplies of wind and solar energy. Our state ranks 3rd or 4th in the nation in wind energy potential, and 13th in the nation in solar energy potential. Yet Nebraska is not even in the top 20 of states in installed wind power, and wind and solar together provide less than 2 percent of Nebraska’s electricity.

In contrast, Iowa got 19 percent of its electricity from wind in 2011, and South Dakota generated more than 20 percent of its electricity with wind. In fact, every state surrounding Nebraska gets far more of its electricity from wind than Nebraska does.

The cost of wind energy has dropped significantly, and proposals for new wind farms are quoting costs of less than 3 cents per kilowatt hour—substantially less than the cost of a new coal-fired or nuclear power plant.

Solar energy costs are dropping even more rapidly. Just a few years ago, solar photovoltaic cost about 20 cents per kilowatt hour. Today, the cost of solar panels has fallen so fast that new solar photovoltaic can provide electricity at less than 8 cents per kilowatt hour.

The wind industry and Nebraska utilities could easily add 300 MW of wind and solar capacity per year over the next eight years. By 2020, just about one-quarter of Nebraska’s electricity could be coming from wind, solar and other renewable energy.

While the wind doesn’t blow all the time and the sun only shines during the day, other technologies are available that can fill in the gaps. Pumped hydro facilities have been used for decades to store energy, and compressed air storage is another option. Newer technologies like utility-scale batteries and using surplus energy to produce hydrogen for fuel cells is being developed, and until then natural gas can provide affordable backup to wind and solar.

3. Gas Is a Natural

Natural gas, like coal, is a fossil fuel. Like coal and oil, burning natural gas puts carbon into the air. However because natural gas is a cleaner fuel, burning it does not put as much sulfur dioxide, particulates or other pollutants into the air. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, producing electricity from natural gas contributes substantially less in greenhouse gases, and far less in pollutants that cause cancer and other illnesses than producing electricity from coal.

Natural gas power plants are also designed to ramp up and down more easily—unlike nuclear and coal-fired power plants, which run best at one speed, cranking out a set amount of electricity hour after hour.

The ability to more easily adjust output to changes in the demand for electricity makes natural gas a better fit for renewable energy like solar and wind that rise and fall. On days when the wind is not blowing as hard, and during the night when the sun is down, natural gas can provide the electricity needed to keep the lights on.

Of the 8,066 MW of power plants in place for Nebraska utilities, about one fourth of that capacity is from plants that burn natural gas. However, those units are rarely used, and typically produce about 1 percent of Nebraska’s electricity, running only on hot summer days when the demand for electricity is highest.

Using Nebraska’s gas-fired power plants as backup to new wind and solar energy would make better use of these important assets. As we bring on much more renewable energy, retrofitting one or more of Nebraska’s older coal-fired power plants to burn natural gas would reduce air pollution while providing more flexibility to add wind and solar energy.

4. Double Duty

Large industrial facilities like ethanol plants and food processors use enormous amounts of energy, and often produce large amounts of heat. With careful design, the waste heat from these facilities can be used to generate electricity, making double use of the same energy.

While Nebraska has good potential for these ‘combined heat and power’ facilities, our state ranks near the bottom of the 50 states in how many of these facilities are actually in place. Nebraska’s historically cheap power costs and public power structure have made it difficult for private companies to justify the investment needed.

As the cost of electricity increases and the benefits of making more efficient use of energy climb, Nebraska utilities should be able to take advantage of opportunities to put in place hundreds of MW of new combined heat and power facilities to make double use of the energy their customers are already using.

5. Reinvigorate Public Power

One impetus for the creation of public power in Nebraska was to deliver services to sparsely populated rural areas of the state—services that were seen as unprofitable by large private power companies. It wasn’t kilowatts that rural residents wanted; it was the clean light that it provided that could replace old oil lanterns, and eventually the labor-saving devices that electricity could power.

Today, people want a house that is warm in the winter and cool in the summer, hot water, lights at night, food that can be kept cold or made hot and gadgets that will run when you flip the switch. As our information technology improves by leaps and bounds, appliances are made more efficient, and energy choices become more complex, there is a clear need for entities willing to provide those energy services in cost-effective ways to consumers.

When it comes to generating power, however, we in Nebraska are still adhering to a business model from the 1950s: simply producing kilowatt hours at the lowest cost. But as we now know, there are critical health, environmental, economic development and financial risk factors that also require close consideration. As the growth in electric demand has slowed (and, hopefully soon, will peak and start to decline), it is imperative we adopt a new business model for power generation that reflects the needs of today.

It makes far more sense, for example, to invest in insulation, weatherizing homes, and energy efficient appliances that will save energy at a penny a kilowatt hour than to continue to generate power that costs two or three times that much. And it’s far more prudent to keep our utility dollars at home—investing in our local communities, creating jobs and wealth for our citizens, and protecting our health as we reduce greenhouse gas emissions—than to be sending our money out of state to Wyoming to buy coal.

Ultimately, the people of Nebraska are the ‘owners’—not just the ‘customers’—of our state’s unique 100-percent publicly owned power system. We are the ‘public’ in public power. Through our locally elected utility boards, we can expand the scope of our public power districts to make them energy service providers and economic development engines, thereby guaranteeing that they will retain an important place at the center of our communities for decades to come.

The Results

With a carefully designed action strategy, cost-effective investments in energy efficiency, wind, solar, combined heat and power, and the conversion of at least one large coal-fired power plant to natural gas, Nebraskans could transform our state’s electric industry. By the end of the decade, we could:

• have 25 percent of our electricity coming from wind and solar energy;
• eliminate the need to build two large new coal or gas-fired power plants in Nebraska;
• reduce the share of our electricity coming from coal to about 20 percent—from over 63 percent in 2010;
• generate billions of dollars of investment in rural Nebraska;
• keep hundreds of millions of dollars in our state; and• put Nebraska on the road towards a sustainable, home-grown clean energy future.

Nebraskans have a clear choice. Our future won’t look like our past, and it shouldn’t. All Nebraskans have a stake in our energy future, and Nebraskans who care about peace, justice and our environment need to be a clear voice for clean energy in those discussions.

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January 10th 2013

Bob Boyce - Duane--Two comments. First--you support using natural gas. But fracking for natural gas is a terribly destructive process, environmentally. Second--you don't mention retiring Gerald Gentleman Station, which would cost $1.5 billion to retrofit to meet clean air regulations. How do we persuade NPPD to get rid of Gerald Gentleman?