LINCOLN, Nebraska — The Central City solar garden is only half an acre, but the 800 panels are among the largest arrays in Nebraska.
Despite interest from communities across the state and reliable sunrays during peak summer months, Nebraska offers few incentives for solar power installations, leaving the 2,800-person town as one of the state's few solar energy pioneers.
"I'm both proud and embarrassed by that fact, to be honest with you," said Cliff Mesner, a Central City attorney who sparked the project in 2014 while on a quest to decrease his own carbon footprint. "I'm happy that we've gotten that far, but I think it shows you how far as a state we are behind."
A bill proposed to the Nebraska Legislature could make it easier for communities to catch up in generating renewable energy. The measure by Malcom Sen. Ken Haar suggests the Legislature spend $4 million of this year's general funds for grants of up to $150,000 each to jumpstart cities' solar projects.
These grants could be used to motivate not-for-profit entities, like cities, to develop solar projects or for utility providers to support solar energy incentive programs.
The cost of solar panels has decreased over the last five years, said Central City City Administrator Chris Anderson, making solar energy more affordable and long-term cost effective than he initially imagined.
But the real key is public-private partnerships, he said.
A portion of Central City's solar garden, 100 panels, is used to generate 25 kilowatts of city power. Central City is able to take advantage of a 30 percent federal tax credit because a local taxpayer bought the panels and sells the electricity to the city at a reduced rate.
Central City's model is just one of the ways the grants could be used.
Haar said traditional energy sources like oil and gas receive subsidies and it makes sense to help renewable energy the same way. A cleaner future involves the accessibility and versatility of solar power, he said.
"You can build solar arrays to any size, and you can put solar arrays on roofs and on top of parking lots. There are all kinds of places that right now are simply unused that we could put solar panels," he said. "That's one of the great advantages. The sun actually does always shine."
Nebraska is the only state to rely solely on public power. When communities look into generating energy locally, called distributive energy, utility providers must adapt to the uncertain balance of a new role.
Central City can produce up to two megawatts of its own electricity under its contract with Nebraska Public Power District. The current project is only 200 kilowatts, but even a much larger solar array would still require a utility provider to maintain the wires and supply electricity when customers need it.
NPPD spokesman Mark Becker said NPPD has not yet taken a position on Haar's bill.
When it comes to distributive energy, Becker said the costs remain higher than the current system. He also said NPPD worries about congested transmission lines. Some proposed transmission routes with capacity to transport renewable energy have received pushback from citizens in rural areas who don't want lines running through their property.
Troy Bredenkamp, general manager with Nebraska Rural Electric Association, says power companies have two main responsibilities by state statute: provide reliable power and provide it affordably. Bredenkamp says NREA members are interested in community-driven renewable energy, but the economy of scale still dictates the grid.
"That central power model, to date, has always been most efficient, most reliable way to produce that power," Bredenkamp said. "As we get into more and more distributive generation opportunities, like wind, like solar, that's going to be something we as public power need to try to adapt to and integrate into the overall electrical system. Because at the end of the day, we still need to be paying attention to reliability and affordability."
Solar power is a relatively new debate in the Nebraska legislature but opponents of energy incentives already say solar power doesn't need a tax break.
Matt Litt, Nebraska state director of the conservative political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, said the organization opposes the bill.
"The government providing green energy isn't economically viable, distorts the market and is about government picking winners and losers," he said.
Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte said he is not opposed to solar power, but he does not support tax credits for energy.
"It's an enterprise system," he said. "If you can build it, then build it. Why does the government have to be involved?
Haar will not prioritize the bill, but said the conversations surrounding it will allow him to gauge the Legislature's reactions to solar energy.
The bill is LB1071.