The Future of Nebraska Energy: Experimenting in the cities

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July 25, 2012 - 7:00pm

If Nebraska became capable of producing 7,800 megawatts of wind energy annually by 2030, it could add as much as $14 billion to the state's economy, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. But Nebraska is far from that. By the end of 2012, the state will have only enough turbines in place to make less than 500 megawatts of wind power per year.
 


Photo by HIlary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Robert and Loretta Fairchild of Lincoln, Nebraska installed 28 solar panels on their roof in March

 

Photos by HIlary Stohs-Krause, NET News

Metropolitan Community College in Omaha is working to be a leader in green technology training through their solar greenhouse.


Several factors contribute to the state's low renewable energy output, but where some see complications, Nebraskans like Robert and Loretta Fairchild of Lincoln see opportunity.

Robert Fairchild is a physics professor at Nebraska Wesleyan University. He teaches about energy efficiency and alternative power, and a couple of years ago, he began putting those lesson plans to work.

"I believe in global warming. I believe it's happening," he said in the living room of the home he shares with Loretta, a retired economics professor. "I think that our heavy reliance on fossil fuel energy sources is exacerbating any natural climate cycle. And so, if I can do a little bit toward lessening demand for coal-fired plant-generated electricity, so much the better."

As of March, the Fairchilds are getting almost all their power from the 28 solar panels attached to the roof of their garage.

It's not a cheap proposition: the total cost of the panels plus installation reached around $38,000.

"It was a bit much," Robert Fairchild said. "But even $38,000 isn't that much, relative to other things you might buy. Go out and price your SUV - you'd spend a lot more. Or your pick-up truck, or whatever. This is at least generating some value."

A federal tax credit helped knock the price down to $26,000, and after doing the math, they said the panels will pay for themselves in 20 to 25 years.

"I think economics in the long-term could shift fairly rapidly," Loretta Fairchild said. "It's true that Nebraska's electricity is among the cheapest in the nation, and we are very fortunate with the way our public power operates. But the long-term perspective for electricity costs are only going up."

Dean Mueller, manager of sustainable energy for the Omaha Public Power District, said the best way for those in the city to go about sustainable energy production is to do like the Fairchilds have done - that is, aim to produce enough energy just for their individual needs.

"I think we could probably count the number of solar installations that we have in Omaha on two hands," he said. Solar is simply too expensive, and giant wind turbines aren't exactly practical to install in your backyard.

But an hour and a half north of the Fairchilds' solar garage, Metro Community College professor Michael Shonka is hoping to make renewable energy more attainable. On a recent, hot spring day, he showed me around the college's solar greenhouse in north Omaha.

"There are numerous areas in here of different types of plants," he said. "As you walk through, you can kind of see - there's a tropical area, a native area right now, in front of us, we have these starter-type plants "

The greenhouse is essentially a lab for experimenting with "green" technology. The college uses the sun both for electricity and to warm the water that heats the greenhouse at night. A new horticulture building will be run completely on solar energy, with a backup generator.

The solar technology is incorporated into classes for multiple disciplines, including construction, plumbing and electrical engineering.

"I'm also working to stimulate the market and consumer demand for the service," Shonka said. "Then we'll have a ready workforce to go in and actually develop and install these types of systems creating a model, or a prototype if you will, of a cottage industry that could be created in the state."

So far, about 100 students have taken solar energy classes at Metro. The program received $300,000 in federal funding, channeled through the state energy office, which gave similar grants to all Nebraska community colleges.

But many people can't have their own solar panels for reasons other than cost - maybe their roof isn't strong enough, or it's shaded by too many trees. Joy Hughes, founder of the Solar Gardens Institute, visited Omaha recently to talk about the idea of opening a solar co-op, which would allow you to invest in someone else's solar panels - whether it's your neighbor's roof, the top of a parking garage or fallow agricultural land outside the city. A share of the electricity generated is then credited to your account.

But in Nebraska, it's still not really feasible for OPPD to engage in such a project, Hughes said.

"What we determined is that the incentives are not at the level where it's going to pay back the subscribers quickly enough to make it a sound investment purely financially," she said. "So the customers that are going to be coming into these are the early adopters, people who really want solar for environmental reasons but can't have it on their own roof."

Cost-wise, it's still hard for solar to compete. Coal and nuclear energy can be produced for about 2 cents per kilowatt hour. Wind, with the federal production credit, comes in at about 4 cents. Solar is at least 20 cents per kilowatt hour, according to numbers from OPPD and NPPD.

So OPPD currently gets the vast majority of its renewable energy via wind farms. But Mueller says solar would be easier to build in an urban area - after all, it's hard to imagine a wind farm on top of a parking garage.

If future innovations in solar technology cause the price to even out, Mueller says the utility would probably switch gears to sun - but for now, they've gone with the wind.

Editor's note: Tune in tomorrow for the second part of our special report, "The Future of Nebraska Energy." We'll meet two rural Nebraskans who get all their energy by renewable means, and look at the challenges for Nebraska's public power utilities when it comes to implementing green technology.

Correction: Edited July 26th, 2012 to clarify sources of numbers in first paragraph regarding potential economic output of wind power, and near the bottom of the story regarding the cost per kilowatt hour of different types of energy.

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