One of the unique things about Nebraska is that all the electric utilities in the state are owned by the public.
As owners, Nebraskans have the right to run their utilities any way they want.
If they so desired, Nebraskans could tell them to rely on nothing but renewable energy sources. Or they could decide to generate all their electricity with nuclear power plants. Or use only coal.
The unusual nature of power generation in the state has been on display recently as officials from the Nebraska Public Power District have been traveling across the state holding "Behind the Outlet" open houses.
Citizens and organizations took full advantage of the open house in Lincoln to tell NPPD officials they don't think much of an alternative calling for spending as much as $1.5 billion to retrofit the coal-fired Gerald Gentleman plant near Sutherland.
A coalition including the Nebraska Sierra Club, Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Farmers Union, League of Women Voters and Bold Nebraska pushed for greater reliance on wind energy.
NPPD has set a goal of supplying 10 percent of its electricity through renewable resources such as wind by 2020. Coalition members say the goal should be highe, and that NPPD is not making enough progress toward even the current goal. "There needs to be an open and frank discussion about the potential for wind development," said Ken Winston of the Sierra Club.
The coalition says Nebraska has the fourth best wind energy resource in the country, but it ranks only 25th among states in using it.
John Hansen of the Farmers Union pointed out that the recent dramatic decline in the price of natural gas means it offers the cheapest way to generate electricity. In addition, coalition members said, use of clean-burning natural gas is complementary to wind energy, because natural gas plants can be shut down and powered up more quickly than coal-fired plants.
On the basis of NPPD's presentation, it appears that the district's executives are leaning toward continued reliance on coal as the cheapest alternative, although they insist no decision has been made. New wind turbines and new backup would cost $4 billion, they said.
NPPD also has taken the unusual step of posting on its website four pages of "talking points to address Sierra Club flyer."
It should be noted that state law reads: "It is hereby declared to be the policy of the state to provide for dependable electric service at the lowest practical cost."
Even that policy, however, could be changed by the will of the people. And it's certainly appropriate for Nebraskans to tell NPPD officials they believe that in the long term more reliance on wind energy will be cheaper.
The interest Nebraskans have shown in public power decision-making is admirable and should be encouraged. The two meetings left on the schedule are at the Marina Inn in South Sioux City, 3-6 p.m., May 14, and at the VFW Club in Columbus, 3-6 p.m., May 15. Comments also can be emailed to GOAinput@nppd.com.