On the west side of Lincoln, I stood on a country road looking out over the vast stretches of rolling farmland, surveying the beautiful green, yellow and brown hues of the corn at near harvest.
In the distance stood an old silo, like a sentry at its post, watching over the morning calm of the fields. The clouds in the overcast sky were giving way to blue above.
Such scenes are so familiar to us in Nebraska that we sometimes take their power for granted. But something was different about this particular view. As the land is about to bring forth its yield of corn, another type of harvest is now taking place each day through the power of the sun. Nestled within the farm setting is 35 acres of solar energy panels. Built for the Lincoln Electric System (LES), the SunShare community solar facility is a first of its kind and size in our region. The solar panels will create enough power for about 900 homes.
We are not talking about Florida, Arizona or California. We are talking about large scale solar on the Great Plains.
We tend to think only of energy policy when gas prices spike. However, our current energy settlement remains in need of a significant upgrade. America’s environmental, economic and national security are inextricably intertwined. Meeting this challenge requires energy and environmental diplomacy where we build bridges with innovation, technology, and willful choice to a rebalanced portfolio with renewable sources.
As I prepared to speak at the solar facility dedication ceremony, my thoughts turned to the great Nebraskan George Norris, a former senator and representative who served in Congress for 40 years. He died in 1944 after a storied career of policy innovation in agriculture and energy. In his autobiography, he describes electricity in a way somewhat strange to modern ears. He is quoted as talking about the importance of our country moving toward an electrified future. He alludes to electricity as a labor saving tool, a mechanism for creating the conditions in which humanity can flourish. Norris believed electricity would save people not only from drudgery, but from physical harm. It would be a new type of power that would further everyone’s wellbeing.
Since then, as we’ve developed our economy through large scale industrial processes, we tend to associate energy production with that which is dirty, remote, and entangled with the foreign affairs of the Middle East. To be fair, from the perspective of public utilities, electricity providers in the 1970s were told to build as much power output as possible, as cheaply as possible, and then sell it to consumers. Now the general message has changed. It is widely understood that utilities need a course correction that harmonizes the values of conservation, environmental stewardship, and sustainable living into a new vision for energy production. At the same time, utilities are caught by certain dilemmas. They face the difficulty of paying for the infrastructure of the legacy of the industrial model of energy production while working to embrace a new energy vision that includes the more robust use of wind, solar, geo-thermal, and hydro, and on the horizon doing so through local, distributed energy production models.
Far from a lab experiment, a symbolic gesture, or a nice idea, the LES solar project is a concrete, innovative, and economically viable pathway for greater energy diversity. Renewable energy sources now constitute about 48 percent of the power purchased by LES customers. LES, the Omaha Public Power District, and the Nebraska Public Power District have all taken steps, particularly through wind, to take advantage of price competitive renewable sources made possible by technology advancements and certain public policies.
At the ribbon cutting, I reacquainted with the farm family who owns the land. I inquired about the nature of the deal they had worked out with the utility, then I thought of another idea — a crop in between the solar panels. I suggested sunflowers.