Creating a Clean Energy Future by 2030
A Blueprint for Public Power in Nebraska
For years, you have read in the Nebraska Report about the dangers of climate change, and the broad consensus among climate scientists that global warming is real and caused by human activities. You have also read about the detrimental health and other impacts of burning coal to produce our electricity, and the need to move quickly towards clean, renewable energy.
The window, however, for making this move is closing rapidly.
The best climate science currently says we only have until 2030 to get off carbon fuels if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
Is such a transformation even possible in 18 years?
For Nebraska and other states, it will require a complete overhaul of the way we produce and use energy. Nebraska’s system of public power, which is 100 percent-owned by the citizens of our state, should be ideally positioned to make that transition.
Unfortunately, our system of public ownership has fallen well short of its potential.
For example, while public support for wind energy in Nebraska is overwhelming and our wind energy potential is the fourth-best in the entire country, our state ranks far behind every surrounding state in installed wind farms. About 20 percent of Iowa’s electricity now comes from wind, as does 23 percent of South Dakota’s electricity. Every surrounding state (even Wyoming, home of the Power River Basin and its monumental coal supply) has more wind energy in place than Nebraska. Wyoming now gets 10 percent of its electricity from wind.
In 2010, Nebraska got just 1 percent of our electricity from wind and solar. Sixty-four percent of our electricity came from coal, and 30 percent came from two nuclear power plants. Hydroelectric dams provided about 4 percent of our state’s electricity, and natural gas provided the remaining 1 percent.
Worse, Nebraska utilities are moving in the wrong direction. The U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration projects that electricity demand will grow by about 0.8 percent per year over the next 30 years. Nebraska utilities think Nebraska’s demand will grow about twice as fast, even though Nebraska’s population is expected to grow slower than the nation as a whole.
At that growth rate, we would need to add about four new 600 MW power plants over the next two decades to meet our needs. Based on past practice by our utilities, much of that need would be met by burning even more fossil fuels.
So what could Nebraska look like in 2030?
Managing Our Demand
First, we could be using much less electricity than today without any change of lifestyle. Our houses, air conditioners, lights, water heaters and appliances all use much more electricity than needed. Commercial buildings, lighting, motors, irrigation pumps, and industrial processes all could be more efficient. Thanks to new standards from states like California and new federal requirements, nearly everything built today is far more efficient than just a few years ago.
With an investment of just $3,000 or $4,000, the electricity use of a typical residential home can be cut by 30 percent or more. This investment makes sense for the homeowner, with the savings from the lower utility bills covering the cost of the investment in a few short years. It also makes sense for your electric utility. In Nebraska, energy efficiency investments that save electrical usage have typically cost half of what it what it would cost to generate a new kilowatt.
Strategic investments in commercial buildings, lighting, and industrial processes can have similarly swift paybacks—and at the same time reduce our electrical demand.
Focused investment by each of Nebraska’s electric utilities—with a realistic goal of reducing electricity use by just 2 percent per year—could more than offset any projected growth in need. Instead of building new power-plants, we could be closing down some of the oldest, dirtiest power-plants in our state.
That would require an annual investment much higher than Nebraska’s electric utilities are currently making. In round numbers, achieving those gains would require an investment of roughly $100 million per year statewide. Nebraska’s three largest electric utilities combined—Nebraska Public Power District, Omaha Public Power District, and Lincoln Electric System—are investing less than one-tenth of that amount today.
Without that $100 million annual investment, Nebraska utilities are on a collision course with the growing need for energy, and the customer-owners of our electric system will ultimately pay the price. With that investment, which represents roughly 4 percent of retail electricity sales in the state, Nebraskans could make the most efficient use of the electricity they use.
Eighteen years from now, Nebraskans could be enjoying the same benefits that electricity now provides and meeting growth in population and energy demand, but be using 20 percent less electricity and producing far fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
Clean, Renewable Energy
Energy efficiency can substantially reduce the amount of electricity we use, but cannot completely eliminate it.
Fortunately, the cost of wind energy has been falling, and the cost of solar energy has been falling even faster. New wind farms can generate electricity for 4 cents per kilowatt hour or less—less than the per-kilowatt cost from a new coal-fired power-plant.
Solar energy too is becoming more affordable by the day. When large California utilities asked for bids for solar energy last year, they were surprised to get bids that came in at 8.9 cents/kWh or less. While more expensive than wind, solar energy is actually more valuable because it peaks during the summer and during the day—times when electricity usage peaks for Nebraska utilities. As technology improves, solar costs are expected to continue to drop.
And unlike wind generation, solar is also suitable for urban residential use. Already we’re seeing Nebraska homeowners investing in rooftop solar systems that generate the bulk of their residential energy needs—with the surplus power fed back to their utility. Others are actively exploring ‘solar gardens’ that could provide electricity to a neighborhood from one central location.
Finally, although it will never be a huge source of energy in our state, hydroelectric power (mostly from large dams like Gavins Point on the Missouri River) can continue to generate carbon-free electricity to Nebraska utilities, just as it has for generations.
As utilities turn more and more to renewable energy, however, they will need to develop energy storage techniques. The technology is already available to pump water up the hill when winds are strong and electricity demand is low, running it back down through turbines to generate electricity when needed. Utilities are already working to shift loads away from late afternoon when electric demand peaks. They must now get creative about shifting loads towards times when wind and solar is most available.
With the investments in energy efficiency noted above, 2,600 MW of wind generation capacity (about 33 wind farms) would be able to generate close to 40 percent of Nebraska’s electrical needs in 2030. With over 300 MW already in place and 18 years to build them, that is less than two new 80 MW wind farms per year. Our neighboring states of Iowa and Minnesota already have more than 4,300 MW and 2,700 MW of wind capacity in place respectively—and Nebraska has far better wind potential than either of them.
Closing the Gap: Nuclear and Natural Gas
Nebraska has two nuclear power-plants, Cooper Nuclear Station and Fort Calhoun. Fort Calhoun is currently out of service, but if Omaha Public Power District can bring it back online safely, these two power plants could continue to generate electricity. With the energy efficiency strategy outlined above, by 2030, nuclear energy would be meeting around 40 percent of our electricity demand—about the same as wind.
Additional investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy would continue, enabling us to ultimately shut down both of these nuclear power plants as they reach the end of their design life.
Natural gas currently meets very little of Nebraska’s energy needs, but with natural gas costs now very low that is changing. Natural gas is also a fossil fuel, but generally burns much cleaner than coal. Natural gas is a much better fit with renewable energy like wind and solar, because it can ramp up and down easily to provide back-up power.
Solar energy and demand management should be able to meet most of our needs for peak demand, especially in the summer. But where it cannot, natural gas can fill in. In the scenario above, natural gas and solar would need to meet just 15 percent of Nebraska’s electrical needs by 2030.
And coal? We wouldn’t need it.
Health, Jobs, and Security
The benefits of clean energy for Nebraska are clear: cleaner air, less asthma, less heart disease, less mercury in our water and air, and no greenhouse gas emissions to aggravate the conditions of climate change. But there are other benefits. The jobs clean energy would bring to rural and urban areas alike will provide a big boost to our state economy. And a clean energy strategy that utilizes our state’s native resources frees us from the risk that events outside of Nebraska—whether international oil and gas markets or coal supplies in Wyoming—would continue to drive up energy prices for Nebraskans.
For all Nebraskans, a clean energy future makes good economic sense, and good environmental sense. What is lacking is leadership. From the Governor to the Legislature to our public power districts, we hear apathy or opposition at worst and ‘go slow’ at best. Nebraskans deserve better. The state that delivered on the promise of public power three generations ago needs to show the nation how to deliver now on the urgent need to create a clean energy future.
The Future is Up to You
Nebraska’s three largest utilities, Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) and the Lincoln Electric System (LES), are all looking at future options for supplying the electricity you use.
NPPD is the farthest along and plans to identify some preferred options this fall. LES is taking input on its integrated resources plan online at www.LES.com, and has scheduled a public forum on Tuesday, August 7. OPPD is starting on a similar process. Many rural public power districts and municipal utilities rely on NPPD to generate their electricity, so they are involved as well.
Your electric utility needs to hear from you! You are the owner—not just the customer—of your electric utility. Speak out now and tell your utility managers and board that you support clean energy like wind, solar and energy efficiency.
The decisions Nebraska utilities make over the next 12 months could launch us into a clean energy future (or lock us into a dirty one) for decades to come. Make your voice heard. The future is up to you.