Nebraska turned more than a few heads recently when public officials there adopted net-zero carbon goals across the electricity sector. After all, clean energy has often been framed as a partisan issue, and solidly Republican Nebraska looks nothing like most of the other states that have staked out timelines for clean power, such as New York, California and Washington State.
But the fact is that renewable energy enjoys support among voters across the political spectrum — even if those voters offer different reasons for their support. Polling has long shown that Americans overwhelmingly favor wind and solar development, and a majority of Republicans support expanding both wind energy and solar farms. Whereas Democratic support is primarily driven by climate concerns, Republican support is driven more by economic benefits, according to a 2020 study.
Although that support is not always reflected in the voting records of elected officials, recent wins for clean energy show the promise of bipartisan action on climate. In North Carolina, a moderate state with a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled legislature, a major climate and energy bill passed in October 2021 with bipartisan support.
“I think people are surprised when they see a red state that supports clean energy, but it’s really not that surprising,” says Chelsea Johnson, deputy director of Nebraska Conservation Voters (NCV). “There is widespread support for clean energy. It isn’t a partisan issue to voters.”
The unique nature of Nebraska’s electricity system provided voters with an opportunity to enact change. Nebraska is the only US state where all major electric utilities are publicly owned and governed by boards of directors. Two of those boards are chosen directly by voters, and the third is appointed by elected officials who, in turn, must be responsive to constituent demands.
“We have elected officials who only make decisions about energy,” Johnson explains. “That has allowed Nebraska voters to rally behind renewables without having to balance their desire for clean energy against more divisive issues. When voters select their public power representatives, they’re basically single-issue voters,” she says.
Polls in the state have found strong support for wind and solar, and in recent years, Nebraskans have backed up that support with their votes. A number of candidates who support clean energy have run for seats on the utility boards in the past few election cycles — and won. Organizations like NCV, along with RMI and Regulatory Assistance Project, have helped the public power representatives consider the range of energy planning decisions available to achieve their objectives responsibly, especially with recent extreme weather events and energy price volatility on the minds of their communities.Nebraska voters can rally behind renewables without having to balance their desire for clean energy against more divisive issues.
Meanwhile, as the composition of the boards shifts, utility leaders are looking ahead to what Nebraska’s grid might look like in an evolving energy landscape. “Probably four or five years ago our CEO said, ‘As I look at the future, there’s a real risk to us in continuing to use coal,’” says Gary Thompson, a long-tenured member of the Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD) board.
Some customers have voiced their desire for clean energy as well, including Monolith Materials, which signed an agreement with NPPD to power a plant expansion with renewables. “They will be by far the largest customer we have, and they have said they want 100 percent renewable energy,” Thompson says. “That’s the kind of pressure we are starting to get.”
Giving the people what they want
Nebraska has some of the best wind resources in the country, and Johnson credits the economic growth that has accompanied wind development with bolstering the popularity of clean energy. “Nebraskans are concerned about young people leaving the state, rural communities dying, loss of community,” she adds. “What wind development has done is it’s actually brought people back to those rural communities and helped them invest in very needed school improvements and other investments.”
Wind and solar projects built this decade could deliver more than $1.4 billion in lifetime revenues to Nebraska’s rural economy, according to an RMI analysis — and the new net-zero commitments may increase that total. As detailed in RMI’s Seeds of Opportunity report, renewables deliver economic benefits to rural communities that include land lease payments, tax revenues, and the jobs and wages that renewable projects provide.
The boards of the three utilities each began exploring decarbonization targets in recent years, driven by a mix of economic analysis, perspectives from new board members, direction from management, and input from customers and constituents.
By 2020, both Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) and Lincoln Electric System had staked out net-zero goals for 2050 and 2040, respectively. And in December 2021, NPPD, the state’s largest electric utility, roundly endorsed a goal to achieve net zero by 2050.
Supporting a sound choice
The utilities were understandably careful in their approach as they weighed the net-zero proposals and evaluated the evolving energy landscape. As part of their due diligence, utility board members and staff participated in RMI learning sessions about the economic and technical potential of renewables. “We provided data and insights about some of the national trends in clean energy, as well as the specific implications for Nebraska,” says RMI’s Chaz Teplin. “We were excited to be part of the conversation.”
In many other states, decarbonization goals have been handed down by state lawmakers, but the Nebraska utilities would be setting goals that they themselves would be responsible for meeting. “The boards wanted to have confidence that it was a good decision, and that it was backed up by facts and science and research,” Johnson says. “I think it was really important to ensure that they had all the information that RMI and the Regulatory Assistance Project provided.” Adds the NPPD’s Thompson of the learning sessions: “those were very, very important to us.”
Both NPPD and OPPD have already begun formal analysis into how to deeply decarbonize the grid. Studies commissioned by NPPD have found that the utility could cut its emissions at least 80 percent by 2050 without significant additional costs to customers. Early findings from an OPPD-commissioned study point to similar results. All three utilities have opportunities for important near-term action, including leveling the playing field for clean energy portfolios to compete against new gas plants, promoting the electrification of vehicles and buildings, and pursuing innovative financial strategies to rapidly transition away from carbon-intensive generation.In many other states, decarbonization goals have been handed down by state lawmakers, but the Nebraska utilities would be setting goals that they themselves would be responsible for meeting.
Into the future
Following NPPD’s vote in December, virtually every electric customer in the state is now covered by a net-zero carbon goal. Though much hard work will be needed to meet those goals, the trends are clear to Thompson of NPPD’s board.
“As I look down the road, I can see that carbon and our costs for producing from carbon-emitting plants, that’s continuing to increase,” he says. Meanwhile, clean energy technologies are advancing rapidly, providing new economic and technological opportunities in Nebraska on the road to net zero. “That’s the future, and we’ve got to be going that way,” Thompson says. “It’s environmental, it’s economic, and it’s inevitable.”