The Greenest Legislative Agenda Ever

The 2013 Unicameral Session will go down as the ‘Year of Clean Energy.’ A dozen substantive bills dealing with renewable energy, energy efficiency and climate change have been introduced—making this year’s legislative agenda easily the ‘greenest’ on record. For those of us seeking action on climate change, this is the opportunity we’ve been hoping for. For the first time ever at the Statehouse, we’ll get to publicly make the case for reducing our carbon footprint by building a green economy. Instead of sending our utility dollars out of state to buy dirty Wyoming coal, we can be investing in our own clean wind and solar resources, creating local wealth and jobs, and protecting the health of both ourselves and the ecosystem.

Much of the credit for this uptick of legislative interest in green energy, though, can be traced back to the reelection last November of the Legislature’s leading environmentalist: State Senator Ken Haar. During his first term, Sen. Haar led the effort to reroute the Keystone XL pipeline away from the Sandhills, championed the legislation promoting large wind farm development in the state, and engineered the passage of a ‘net-metering’ bill to encourage residential-scale renewable energy generation. Step by deliberate step, he was laying the groundwork for a comprehensive green energy agenda.

His bid for reelection though (against a well-financed right-wing opponent) was to become the fight of his political life. Over the course of a costly and physically grueling year-long campaign, Sen. Haar raised and spent more than $232,000—smashing the previous spending record for a legislative race as he tried to match his opponent’s deep pockets. (Counting the expenditures of independent political committees, upwards to $1 million may have been spent on this race for an office that pays $12,000 a year.) Despite these hitherto-unheard-of spending figures, his victory margin Election Night was so slim he had to wait a week for the provisional ballots to be counted before he knew for certain he’d won. By 85 votes. Out of a total 13,653 cast.

That gut-wrenching experience, however, only served to deepen his resolve. He has unabashedly designated clean energy and education as his legislative priorities for the next four years. Between now and 2016, the people of Nebraska will have the best environmental advocate imaginable at very moment the entire world needs to be charting a path to a carbon-free future.

Below is a brief overview of the 2013 legislation, which together forms a comprehensive green agenda. How successful this legislative agenda ends up being depends, of course, on us. Senator Haar and his colleagues can propose, but it is up to us as constituents to ensure that these bills become law. The task of contacting our respective senators and gaining their support is ours. Never before have Nebraska citizens had the opportunity to push such a green agenda in state government. It falls to us to make the most of it—starting with the public hearings on the bills.

The Green Energy Bills

Senator Haar’s Legislative Bill 583 will provide the first authentic legislative discussion of climate change in memory. In 1991, the Unicameral authorized a little-known “Climate Assessment and Response Committee” to serve mainly as a clearinghouse on drought data and emergency procedures. LB 583 would expand the committee’s make-up to include more members with expertise in climate science and extend its statutory charge to consider both the long-term implications of climate change and policy strategies for addressing this mounting threat. With actual testimony from climate scientists, the public hearing in the Agriculture Committee should clear up many of the lingering misconceptions about the science and the urgency for government action.

LB 567, also introduced by Senator Haar, would establish additional criteria for public power—beyond ‘low cost’ and ‘reliability’—when investing in new electrical generation. Dubbed the “True Cost of Energy Bill” because it would also require consideration of the impact of the generation source on human health, the environment and the climate; the impact on local economic development and job creation; water-usage demands; the long-term financial risk of the fuel and its generation costs; and any potential losses in tax revenue and local investment from utilizing out-of-state fuels over home-grown energy resources. Adoption of the True Cost of Energy Bill would ease the way for the “Nebraska Power Review Board” to approve renewable energy development and energy efficiency measures, as they do not have the negative health and environmental effect of coal and can offer far more economic benefits to Nebraskans.

Two other bills—LB 104 (sponsored by Omaha Senator Steve Lathrop) and LB 411 (sponsored by fellow Omahan Jeremy Nordquist)—would provide tax incentives for renewable energy development in the state. Currently, all of our neighboring states offer tax incentives for wind and solar projects, placing Nebraska at a competitive disadvantage. While the precise form of these incentives is still under discussion, it’s imperative that state government ‘level the playing field’ for renewable energy development—not just with our next-door neighbors, but against the fossil fuel industry, which continues to receive an array of tax breaks. Nebraska will continue to lag in renewable energy development (and the jobs and rural development that come with it) until green power has an equal chance to compete.

LB 622, another bill introduced by Senator Haar, would require public power districts to report areas where renewable energy generation (of 20 megawatts or less) could be built and connected to the existing transmission grid. It’s one thing to put up a wind turbine and generate electricity. It’s another to have the available transmission capacity to get that generated energy to market. Having an up-to-date catalog of available capacity is critical to encouraging locally owned, small-scale wind generation development. Yet another Haar wind-related bill (LB 184) would appropriate $50,000 a year for two years to the University of Nebraska for the “Nebraska Wind Applications Center” to help schools install wind energy systems.

Omaha Senator Heath Mello’s LB 402 would encourage the development of rural ‘community-based energy development’ projects by easing the legal conditions for their formation. C-BED projects for renewable energy hold enormous promise for rural communities and local investors, but to date have not developed as hoped. The statutory revisions in LB 402 are designed to help this community-based economic development tool become more economically usable.

The Natural Resources Committee has introduced LB 340, which would allow the Power Review Board to approve an application for a special renewable energy project without holding a public hearing, and LB 388, which would give the local public power district first rights to build transmission lines approved by a regional transmission authority.

Lincoln Senator Amanda McGill is sponsoring legislation that would permit the development of ‘community solar gardens’ (LB 557). The bill would allow people to join together to build a community solar project that would enable all of the participants in the project to benefit from the energy generated. Even if you live in an apartment, have poor solar access or insufficient capital to put solar panels on your own residence, under this bill you would still be able to generate your own solar-powered electricity. When done on a large-enough scale, this type of ‘distributed generation’ (energy generated from many small sources) can effectively reduce an electrical utility’s base-load demand for fossil fuel-based energy.

LB 598, introduced by Senator Tyson Larson of O’Neill, would increase the cap on net-metering from 25 kilowatts to 100 kilowatts. Under Nebraska’s existing net-metering law, homeowners with solar panels or other renewable energy generators are able to transfer surplus power onto the utility power grid, offsetting the power they draw—effectively ‘running the meter backwards.’ The current 25-kw cap limits the kinds of renewable energy projects that would be most cost-effective for farmers, ranchers and small rural communities. Increasing the cap will make net-metering available to a new class of renewable energy producers.

Two bills dealing specifically with ‘eminent domain’ grew out TransCanada’s bullying behavior towards Sandhills landowners over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Fullerton Senator Annette Dubas’s LB 152 would require entities that intend to use eminent domain to have all necessary permits before they can negotiate with landowners or engage in eminent domain proceedings. Lincoln Senator Bill Avery’s LB 553 would require entities seeking to exercise eminent domain to provide advance notice to property owners. Both of these bills, if passed, will help restrain TransCanada from beginning work on the pipeline prior to the permitting process being entirely completed.

Senator Norman Wallman of Beatrice has introduced a bill that would establish some state standards for hydraulic fracturing in natural gas exploration. LB 635 would empower the “Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission” to oversee ‘fracking’ operations in the state—including the adoption of rules and regulations—to protect the public safety.

Finally, Sen. Dubas’ bill, LB 486, takes a first step toward developing a viable system of mass transportation in the region. Her bill would appropriate funds to the Legislative Council to pay dues under the “Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact.” Rail passenger service is a transportation mode whose time has come, and in a geographically sprawling state like Nebraska, it’s idiotic that we don’t have an economical and energy efficient passenger train system to serve our citizens.

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