As a conservative electorate awash in cheap electricity, Nebraskans remain a hard bunch to change. Now, with solar energy lifting off at schools, businesses and farms around the state, the question is whether PV in the heartland can competePhoton Magazine | October 9th, 2010
Robert Byrnes, a 48-year-old army veteran with a broad nose and a rugged cleft chin, is the kind of man who can tell you everything that’s wrong with Nebraska’s state energy policy while sweating in the shade of a solar panel and gnawing on a cob of corn. Byrnes holds a degree in organic chemistry from the University of Massachusetts and runs an integrator business, Nebraska Renewable Energy Systems, on a 10-acre off-grid estate that he calls his Â»Energy Farm.Â« When I met him he’d just returned from Kansas where he was trying to drum up work installing photovoltaics (PV), but the trip didn’t yield much and Byrnes wondered where, and when, his next solar job would be.
Â»It’s like we’re chewing on rawhide trying to make things happen in Nebraska,Â« he says, tromping through a chest-high patch of sweet corn to the manually adjusted tracker where his four-panel 750W PV array powers the farm’s lighting, television and refrigerator. Byrnes brushes away the flies buzzing around his legs as cicadas throng in the summer heat. Â»Everybody’s struggling out here. There’s no state incentive for solar – none, zero. From the wholesalers to the installers to the retailers, there simply isn’t work.Â«
Nebraska ranks around the top dozen US states in solar irradiation. It has the unique status of being the only state whose energy utilities are 100-percent consumer-owned. Not only that, it’s the one state with a unicameral form of government: there is no Nebraska House and Senate, only a single 43-senator Legislature, which theoretically shortens the bureaucratic hurdles and the time that it takes to get bills passed.
Nevertheless, it wasn’t until May 2009 that Nebraska broke 17 years of political gridlock and approved a solar net-metering law, becoming one of the last American states to do so. Serious compromises had to be made to get there – the most glaring one, perhaps, being the drop in the maximum capacity a PV system is allowed to have to feed electricity into the grid, from an originally proposed 100 kW down to 25 kW. Which is one reason that, for Byrnes, living out here in the lush green farm country where a bright sun towers over all, the long-awaited bill amounts to little more than Â»a joke.Â«
Angered that the 2009 law lets utilities pay PV electricity producers on a month-to-month basis rather than on a yearly rollover basis, and that it puts a freeze on payments once Nebraska reaches 1 MW of installed solar capacity, Byrnes sounds exasperated: Â»We let the utilities put their net-metering bill into our bill, and they got what they wanted: a law that tolerates renewable energy. What we want,Â« he added, Â»is a law that incentivizes it – that promotes it and assists it. We want a law that says, â€ºCome on, do it people!â€¹Â«
The cost of cheap power
At a time when many expect federal stimulus funds to spark a boom in hiring for green jobs, solar entrepreneurs like Byrnes are struggling to stay afloat in the Cornhusker State. And there’s a reason: Nebraska has some of the cheapest electricity rates in the country. In 2008, the state recorded the seventh lowest costs for energy nationwide, averaging just 6.6Â¢ per kWh. That compares with its official total output of 5.9 kW from PV that year. As Jerry Loos, spokesman for the Nebraska Energy Office, says, Â»Low electricity rates are the first barrier to solar in Nebraska. They’ve impeded implementation and adoption [of PV] across the state.Â«
Theoretically, in a taxpayer-owned utility system where the ratepayers themselves elect the companies’ boards of directors, if the population wants to promote PV and other renewable energy generation, it will have an easier time doing it. In practice, however, public power in Nebraska means cheap power. Of the 163 public utilities and co-operatives across the state, three are dominant – Nebraska Public Power District (NPPD), Lincoln Electric System (LES), and Omaha Public Power District (OPPD). Their mission is a simple one: to keep costs down.
And thanks, in part, to Nebraska’s cheap, abundant and nearby supply of coal, the price of centralized generation isn’t likely to increase soon.
Oil and gas coming from places like Kansas, the Gulf of Mexico and Canada add to Nebraska’s cheap energy mix. So does the state’s vast network of railway lines. As a central hub of both east-west and north-south national transit, Nebraska reportedly contains the most miles of train track in the nation. Regular bidding between companies like United Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe means utilities can count on consistently low energy-transport costs.
It isn’t the case that Nebraskans are averse to producing solar energy, or that the state has poor conditions for doing so. On the contrary, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) reports that Nebraska receives a maximum solar potential of 7.8 kWh per m2 in the summer – 14th best in the nation, even higher than Florida – and a minimum of 2.6 kWh per m2 in winter, which is more than 1 kWh greater than California’s winter minimum.
Rather, the barrier to PV is something much more plain and simple: cost. As John Richards, an engineer with the NPPD, puts it, Â»People in Nebraska just want to keep their rates down. They’re looking at taxes and it’s just a big annoyance.Â«
Mark Becker, media spokesman for the NPPD, backed his colleague with hard facts, saying: Â»If people are going to have a PV system, they have to know they’re getting a return on investment. Comparing 26Â¢ or 27Â¢ per kWh [for solar] to 6Â¢ per kWh [at current retail prices] makes the decision for them.Â«
In 2008, 77 percent of Nebraska’s energy came from fossil fuels, 12 percent from nuclear, and the remaining 11 percent from hydroelectric and other renewables. Nebraska’s three largest utilities have pledged to produce 10 percent of their energy from solar, geothermal and, above all, wind, by 2020. However, that pledge remains more of a friendly gesture than a binding commitment. As Dean Mueller, OPPD’s sustainable energy director, puts it bluntly: Â»The carbon content associated with coal is becoming a big deal. But there’s still no requirement for us to change.Â«
Mueller says that the utility is Â»trying to get our feet wet and understand the economics of solar,Â« adding, Â»when we start to need capacity, that’s when you’ll see us go for feed-in tariffs.Â« But, he notes, Â»for us in Nebraska, that will be an economic decision.Â«
A solar education
OPPD did provide financial backing recently for the largest PV system installed in the state – a 110 kW array completed in July at downtown Omaha’s Creighton University.
The $1.4 million project, 80 percent of which was funded by the US Department of Energy (with about $250,000 in assistance from OPPD), is spread across three installations: at a performing arts center, a fitness center, and a 435-panel, hundred-yard-long array stretching across the main campus parking lot. Employing a range of module types, including Sanyo, Sharp, Evergreen and Schott, the system will save the Jesuit university about $60,000 per year while meeting 4 percent of its energy needs.
More importantly, the array is meant to be a testing station for students – not just those from Creighton, but from community colleges and universities across the state – who want hands-on technical experience in the maintenance, monitoring and analysis of solar equipment. According to Michael Cherney, the Creighton physics professor who initiated the plan, the PV Â»laboratoryÂ« will prepare a generation of students for careers in renewable technology.
Â»The arrays are meant for [the students] to take apart and put back together, or put something else up in their place,Â« he says.
Cherney, who is helping to develop Creighton’s new Energy Technology program, which is scheduled to start in 2011, said that he envisions the program producing Â»engineers who are more than just engineers and policy makers who are more than just policy makers.Â«
Another solar educator and integrator, Michael Shonka, of Solar Heat and Electric, began teaching a PV installation seminar last year at Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, where he said students learn everything from voltage testing and array assembly to how to write grants and plans for PV construction jobs. Thanks to $1.8 million in federal aid for solar and renewable energy education, which is being shared among community colleges across the state, Shonka and others will start Â»passing on the knowledge necessary to restart the solar industry – to start training the trainers.Â«
Shonka recently started a Nebraska non-profit to help solar installers save on equipment purchases; he is also forming a Solar Working Group, which he hopes will coordinate with the state Legislature to plan and advise PV policies, education and economic development.
For now, though, integrators like Jon Dixon are feeling the pinch. He started Dixon Power Systems 11 years ago in Lincoln. In 2006, Dixon installed the state’s first school solar- and wind-powered system, a 2.8 kW array at the lush, farm-like Prairie Hill Montessori school, about 20 minutes south of the state capital. Before that, in 2003, Dixon installed 2.2 kW of solar modules on the sloping roof of Hyde Observatory – a former NASA hot-air collecting station that today hosts public viewings of the night sky – making it the first grid-tied installation in Lincoln.
The Hyde project, which cost $24,000 and offsets one-third of the building’s energy costs, has become something of a progressive landmark in the city. Nevertheless, Dixon, who is one of just two principal PV installers in the state capital, is struggling desperately these days to find work.
Â»If I do two [installations] a year, that’s pretty good. But this year is slower,Â« he says, Â»and so far I haven’t done any.Â« As of August, Dixon was still awaiting confirmation from the city to install a 900 W solar-powered bus station in downtown Lincoln; he also hoped his $55,000 bid to build a 10 kW residential system would go through.
Hard times for installers
Dixon, Robert Byrnes and others exemplify the challenges that small-scale solar entrepreneurs face in Nebraska, where the recession is dragging on and where public power is king. Martin Hoer of Nebraska Solar Solutions LLC, in Omaha, said that in 2006 and 2007, PV sales were getting strong and he was moving as much as $30,000 in products a year. Â»But last year was horrible,Â« Hoer says, adding, Â»As soon as the financial crisis hit, people just stopped installing.Â«
Dixon’s main Lincoln-based competitor, Randy Schantell of SWT Energy Inc., has, like Byrnes, increasingly sought out jobs in further-away locations to ensure that his workflow continues. A former energy auditor with the Nebraska Energy Office, Schantell says bids on projects out of state have become necessary because of the sheer lack of investments at home. Â»We’re mostly chasing after stimulus or grant money now because that’s where the jobs are,Â« he notes.
Schantell, who wears his white hair combed straight back and has a white toothbrush moustache, recently installed a 17.6 kW PV array worth $230,000 on a state office building in neighboring South Dakota. Not long ago, he bid on a stimulus job, which he didn’t get, in Grand Junction, Colorado. In August he was in the process of submitting a bid for a 1 MW installation on a Wells Fargo banking center in Des Moines, Iowa. Â»If we had a feed-in tariff in Nebraska, boom – we’d go crazy with solar!Â« he said. But he doesn’t expect it will happen anytime soon.
Even Mike Rezac, owner of the Lincoln-based green building company Rezac Construction, is having a hard time selling the $640,000 Net Zero Energy Home he built in a rustic suburb of the capital known as The Bridges. Loaded with a sparkling blue, 48-panel 9 kW rooftop array, the ultra-energy-efficient house – which has a geothermal heating and cooling system, as well as airtight passive-solar design – has yet to find a buyer. The home’s readiness for use, and its loneliness out there under the big sun-filled Nebraska sky, says much about the status of PV in the state.
It’s federal or nothing
The problem is emphasized by Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska, who repeated the now-familiar refrain, Â»For any renewable energy source to catch on in Nebraska, it needs to be cost-effective for the public utilities.Â« Although the senator introduced the SMART Energy Act to Congress last year – a law that would, in his words, create an Â»energy superhighway [to] enable Nebraska windmills and solar arrays to generate electricity for the nation’s urban centersÂ« – he is less than sunny about the prospects for PV in his state.
Indeed, with state incentives for PV nonexistent, the federal option, as Randy Schantell said, is about the only game in town. Thanks to a $5 million Department of Energy (DOE) grant, this year the Nebraska Energy Office (NEO) was able to offer up to 80 percent financing, and sometimes more, on a series of Advanced Renewable Energy grants for Â»cutting edgeÂ« solar projects throughout the state. Out of some 112 applicants, only six were approved for funds. Two of these projects are installations proposed by Robert Byrnes of Nebraska Renewable Energy Systems. One is for a $290,000 residential rooftop array in the northeastern town of Winnebago; the other is for a 14 kW dual-axis tracking system to be mounted at Allen and Becky Fleischmann’s family farm, in Tekamah, which will become the biggest PV farm installation in the state.
Becky Fleischmann says that the idea of installing a solar array on the farm might never have come about had her local utility company, Burt County Public Power (BCPP), not suddenly begun to charge the family for its use of three separate meters on the farm – doubling and in some cases tripling the farm’s energy bill to as high as $300 per month.
Now, with a $132,000 PV system set to be installed there – out of which the NEO grant covers $106,000 – the Fleischmanns are looking at a payback time of 3 to 4 years, and they hope to produce enough solar electricity to run the entire farm, including a water pump for livestock, electric fences, heat lamps in winter, general lighting, household appliances and pumps for irrigating more than 8 acres of garden.
In the farming community that surrounds the Fleischmann’s land, locals have viewed the family’s decision as a welcome sign of change.
Â»More and more people are getting interested in this type of lifestyle,Â« Becky Fleischmann says. Â»Now I’m receiving four or five emails a day from people wanting to learn about solar energy and self-sufficiency.Â«
Another winner of NEO solar grant money was the Omaha-based firm Morrissey Engineering, whose contractors were in the final stages of installing a rare double-sided, or bifacial, module array on top of the company’s new LEED Platinum facility (the first such building in Nebraska) in August.
The 5.46 kW system consists of 28 Sanyo 195 W bifacial panels that are held in place with a series of 200 lb concrete ballasting slabs designed to withstand winds of up to 90 mph. The idea is that the modules will collect residual sunlight as it reflects off of Morrissey’s hot, white-rubber-coated roof, providing what the company hopes is 20 to 30 percent greater efficiency than standard modules. The firm decided to use a 7 kW inverter to ensure its carrying capacity.
Â»There’s not a lot of bifacial [modules] out there, they’re kind of a niche product,Â« says Jared Friesen, the engineer overseeing the project. Â»We thought we’d use that synergy and see if we can’t get a little boost in power from the backside of those panels. We’ll see how much production they actually give us.Â«
Generating 8,500 kWh a year, the system should cover about 5 percent of the company’s electricity needs. Beyond that, it will be a model showing fellow Nebraskans that solar actually works. Â»Clients want to see these things [in action] before they consider doing them themselves,Â« says George Morrissey, the company’s founder and owner.
While it may not be the kind of progress that changes government policy, Morrissey is convinced that firms like his will lead the way in Nebraska. Â»We’ve got a long ways to go yet,Â« he says, Â»but there’s promise.Â«
Overcoming the barriers
Robert Byrnes says that despite last year’s passage of the net-metering law, the state’s utilities have made it almost bureaucratically impossible for the average consumer to connect to the grid. According to NPPD public relations, a customer who wants to tie in with solar needs only to go online and fill out a two-page request form, after which the company is obliged to connect her within 60 days. But Byrnes says that’s often not the case with the big utilities, citing the OPPD’s Â»45-page interconnection agreement, a form that you have to have an electrical engineering degree to complete.Â«
Â»They don’t want it simplified,Â« he says. On the question of net-metering, Â»public power has been totally unresponsive to the public.Â«
Seeing neither help from the state nor the support of the consumer-owned utilities, some Nebraskans have taken the PV initiative into their own hands and a grassroots movement is developing as a result. Bing Chen, professor and chairman of the University of Nebraska’s Computer and Electronics Engineering department, is also the secretary of the Omaha-based non-profit Nebraska Solar Energy Society.
The group sponsors city workshops and public lectures on how to build solar modules, as well as a certification program that trains inmates at Nebraska’s state prison in PV installation. There is even an annual Nebraska Solar Tour, which takes place Oct. 2 as part of a nationwide event organized by the American Solar Energy Society, in which PV installation owners across the state open their doors and invite the public in to learn about solar energy.
But Bill Roush, head of the Heartland Solar Energy Industries Association, believes that until a federal carbon tax or a substantial new subsidy ramps up solar investment in the state, it’s not going to happen. Â»Nebraska has some of the cheapest power on the planet, and raising electricity rates has gotten a lot of governors kicked out of office,Â« he points out. Roush suggests that some version of property-assessed clean energy (PACE) financing or a limited feed-in tariff might start the ball rolling on a state level.
As Bill Moore, editor of the Omaha-based electric vehicles magazine EV World, says, Â»We know solar works, that’s not the question. But this state, like many American states, is controlled by the utilities and they like the status quo. The last thing they want is for distributive generation to start coming in.Â«
But for Michael Cherney, the physics professor who looks forward to greeting the first class of freshmen entering the Energy Technology program that begins at Creighton University next year, there’s no better place than Nebraska to show what PV is capable of. Consumer-owned power Â»lets us be the place for experimentation in distributive generation.Â«
Â»Our problem,Â« Cherney adds, in a more orthodox tone, Â»is that we’re a very conservative state. And change happens slowly.Â«