Late March found me in Grand Island, Nebraska, for the Annual Meeting of NMPP Energy, a joint action agency with nearly 200 member communities across six midwestern and mountain states. Trips in the past 12 months have taken me to Omaha and Lincoln in eastern Nebraska, but I had not traveled further west. Grand Island is in the central part of the state, and is the home of the Nebraska State Fair, which moved there a few years ago from Lincoln.
NMPP Energy took full advantage of the location — its Annual Meeting started with a reception and dinner in the “Raising Nebraska” exhibit, located in the Nebraska Building at the state fairgrounds. The exhibit told the story of Nebraska agriculture and livestock. It even had a full size elevated “pivot” — those irrigation piping systems on wheels that produce the distinctive crop circles you see from the air. But the installation that I thought was the coolest — aside from the world’s largest pair of overalls(!) — was a to-scale walkable model of the entire state, showing how the elevation rises as you go from east to west. I had always thought of Nebraska as part of the prairie flat lands, but in fact it rises from less than 1,000 feet above sea level at the eastern border to around 4,000 feet at the western border. They say that semis get better mileage traveling the state from west to east, because the drive is downhill.
EPA’s Clean Power Plan was a focus of the Annual Meeting program — Nebraska is one of the states to which EPA assigned a very stringent CO2 emissions target in the final CPP. Utilities and regulators in the state are wrestling with how to comply while maintaining reasonable rates and reliable service. The stay that the Supreme Court granted in February provides some additional breathing room to consider these very difficult issues.
Nebraska has long been a coal-dependent state, which makes sense, given its proximity to western coal deposits. However, it also has a good wind resource — as evidenced by the semis I saw hauling long and gracefully curved wind turbine blades along Interstate 80.
Among the highlights of the meeting program, was a presentation by Chris Anderson, city administrator of Central City, Nebraska. Chris described how the city began working cooperatively with a local businessman in 2014 to develop a solar garden, which currently has a total electric generating capacity of 200 kilowatts and is the state’s first community solar project. Plans are for an additional 500 kilowatts to be installed this summer, with the goal of reaching a total electric generating capacity of two megawatts during 2017.
Central City adopted virtual net metering to allow individuals and businesses to own solar panels at the facility, rather than installing panels on individual rooftops or property. The virtual net metering program is applicable to the first 500 kilowatts. The city is considering whether changes are needed to its customer charge for electric service to all customers. Currently, the city owns panels along with seven other businesses. The partnership provides benefits to the city and the panel owners. Many other communities and utilities have toured the facilities to learn how Central City implemented the project. Chris thinks that the Central City community solar garden will be only the first of many renewable energy projects in Nebraska and has helped to usher in a new solar movement in the state.
NMPP Energy was impressed enough to award Central City a Project of the Year award as CEO Bob Poehling announced during the banquet held on the second night of the meeting.
NMPP Energy’s sister organization, the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska, gave Phil Overeynder, special projects utilities engineer for the City of Aspen, Colorado, MEAN’s Rudy Hultgren Dedicated Service award. Phil worked multiple years on the Aspen Climate Action Plan, which the Aspen City Council adopted in 2007. He worked with MEAN to help Aspen meet the Climate Action Plan’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2015.
The staff of NMPP Energy, including Bob, Katrinka Dicke, Andrew Ross, Carol Brehm and of course, my fellow public power lawyer, Chris Dibbern, treated me like a very special guest during my visit. And I have to give a shoutout to Dave Dietz, who gallantly chauffeured me from Omaha to Grand Island and back. Something tells me he would have rather made the trip on his Harley!
So thanks to NMPP Energy for giving me an excuse to experience Central Nebraska — it was a very good time with very good people.