(Photo by David Sorich on Flickr)
Plenty of states and utilities have set goals to make their electricity carbon-free, but last week, an unlikely candidate came forward. The board of Nebraska’s largest electric utility, Nebraska Public Power District, has voted to set a net-zero target for the state’s electricity by 2050.
This is a weaker goal compared to other states: It’s almost 30 years out, non-binding and not exactly brimming with details about how they plan to get there. But it is notable: Nebraska is the first Republican-controlled state to set a goal for carbon-neutral electricity by mid-century.
There’s nothing inherently anti-conservative about responding to climate change or even cutting greenhouse emissions. But a majority of Republican politicians across the U.S. have been either indifferent or actively hostile to such moves, including Nebraska’s own legislature.
So what happened here? There’s pair of unusual conditions in Nebraska that helped get them to this target – and that may set them up for success in getting there. And while Nebraska is truly unique, there’s lessons here about understanding where local efforts can be most effective.
Direct climate decision-makers right on the ballot
Nebraska is the only state where all three utilities are publicly-run, NPPD being the largest. The state’s other utilities have already passed similar or more aggressive goals. The utilities are also answerable to a board, elected directly by Nebraska voters.
This structure means there’s no other direct stakeholders — namely investors — in the process of deciding what electricity sources will be built and what will be shut down. There’s also no additional layer of bureaucracy: Nebraska’s public service commission regulates natural gas at the consumer level, but not electricity.
While all of Nebraska’s utilities are public, there’s almost 2,000 public utilities serving 24 million Americans across the US (member-owned cooperatives account for another 20 million). The track record of public utilities on pushing for cleaner energy is mixed.
But Nebraska’s setup also holds a huge amount of power if elected utility boards do want to cut emissions. Environmental, renewable and climate groups in Nebraska began focusing on the elections in each of the three utilities. Voters elected renewable friendly board members across the state in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
Suddenly, utility board elections are a big deal. Support from climate advocates and as well as opposition from one of state’s largest electricity consumers, the ethanol industry, drove the 2020 NPPD board election to record-breaking amounts of money raised and spent. (Read more in this comprehensive story by Karen Uhlenhuth)
Wind. Lots of it.
Wind power has grown very quickly in Nebraska, tripling in the last five years. The state now gets almost a quarter of its electricity from renewable sources, most of it wind. Coal is still the majority of power, but counter to trend, coal is not being supplanted in Nebraska, by and large, by gas. If that continues, electricity emissions from Nebraska will be cut more dramatically than other states, percentage-wise.
Nebraska also has a lot of room to grow. A Department of Energy study suggests the state has one of the top 10 largest potentials for wind power in the U.S., more than existing Plains wind powerhouses like Texas, Iowa and Oklahoma. Put another way, Iowa has installed 4% of its technical capacity for wind; Nebraska has installed 0.5%.
All of this means Nebraska is an attractive place for wind turbine and transmission companies. “There are not very many industries that want to invest billions of dollars in rural Nebraska, and clean energy is one of those industries,” the deputy director of Nevada Conservation Voters told Grist.
Nebraska certainly has a long way to go – the state still relies on coal and still burns plenty of fossil fuels outside of the electricity sector — but the conditions that led this largely rural, largely conservative state to climate action might ease that path.
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Among the things I'm cooking up for 2022: a guide to understanding your city's local emissions pledges, a collaboration with another newsletter writer and adding benefits for paid subscribers.
For the last two weeks of December, the newsletter will be links-only as I take some time off, continue reporting on longer-term stories and plan for next year.
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