Now is the time to revisit our State Energy Plan

Public power exists across America, but Nebraska is the only 100% public power state in the nation. Like our unicameral, rural electrification was an inspiration of native son George Norris. Norris writes of watching his mother sewing by lamplight, and envisions the comfort, convenience and economic advantages of electricity brought to every corner of the state.

State and federal regulation plays a significant role in public power, and multi-state markets increasingly determine which plants will operate and what the price of that power will be. Your local elected and appointed officials work within this framework to assure accountability, efficiency and adherence to community values.

Nebraskans have a fondness for local control, so there are 167 electrical utilities in our state. The "system" grew from the early years where communities built their own generators to serve local needs, through the Rural Electrification Act and various initiatives to provide irrigation to agriculture, through the merger and consolidation of investor-owned utilities in the 1970s. The Nebraska Power Review Board maintains an interactive map showing current utilitiy service. To view the communities and districts NPPD alone serves is a bit dizzying. Maps are displayed here and here and here. I cannot count the number of times my consituents have been amazed at the shape of my own district.

This is one reason I believe it is time to take a look at the structure, operation and mission of public power. A citizen ought to be able to see who is making decisions in their behalf without much research. Transparency and clarity are fundamental markers of quality in a representative democracy.

There are many more compelling reasons for the state to take up this initiative:

  • Market conditions and reliability regulations have transformed the dispatch and transmission of power. The three major generating utilities in Nebraska belong to the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a market serving utilities in nine states. After a utility has opted to make its generating plants available and indicated its pricing floor, SPP determines which plants across the region will run and what the utility will be paid for its power. Decisions which were once made very locally are now controlled at the regional and national levels.

  • Economic drivers have changed as well. The desire to export renewable energy to other regions requires new transmission, and we don't have a clear method to determine what Nebraskans should pay for this service to other consumers. With the construction of investor-owned wind farms, property tax benefits are derived but not socialized across the system.

  • As personal ownership of solar panels, electric cars and other small-scale generation grows, public power must grapple with a new model of service delivery that is equitable to all rate payers in the system.

I am very supportive of LB 583 to conduct a state energy plan, introduced by Senator Ken Schilz of Ogallala and cosponsored by Senators Kowalski, Mello, Nordquist, and Pansing- Brooks. I am impressed by the bi-partisan collaboration in drafting the bill and optimistic that with the chairs of two key legislative committees represented (Natural Resources and Appropriations), the subject will be given the deep consideration such a broad and complicated topic deserves. I am also encouraged by Govenor Pete Ricketts’ appointment of David Bracht to head the Nebraska Energy Office. Bracht, an attorney with significant experience in renewable energy development in the investor-owned world, can bring technical insight and vigor to the planning process.

To those who wish to reap maximum benefit from our unique universe of public power utilities, I suggest we have never had a better time to commit to a comprehensive state energy plan. We have too much to gain to continue to operate as blind folks hugging an elephant—each proposing a solution for the small feature of the beast each individual can perceive. We have too much to lose to be less than systematic in our planning.

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