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Utility officials warned lawmakers Tuesday a plan for so-called community solar gardens could increase energy costs in Nebraska, but environmentalists said it would make it easier for residents to use solar power to provide electricity to their homes.

The bill (LB557) being considered by the Legislature's Natural Resources Committee would allow residents to join community solar gardens, similar to co-ops, in exchange for credits on their electric bills.

Individuals, businesses or nonprofits could set up solar panels in an empty field or on the roof of a building, then others could purchase shares rather than installing solar panels at their own homes or businesses. Such gardens would be allowed to generate up to two megawatts of power that would contribute to the electricity already provided by a local utility.

The bill's sponsor, Lincoln Sen. Amanda McGill, said community gardens in Colorado inspired the plan, which has the support of environmental groups including the Nebraska Sierra Club and the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. NWF energy director John Atkeison said solar power has become much more affordable as technology evolved.

"As utility rates rise and the cost of the solar hardware falls, we can expect more competitiveness and much, much more solar power," he said.

The Nebraska Power Association, Lincoln Electric System and other public power groups said although they supported expanding solar energy and renewable resources, they opposed the legislation. NPA lobbyist Kristen Gottschalk said the program contradicted the 2009 net metering law, which was intended as a safeguard for consumers using renewable energy.

"While we certainly understand the interest in creating solar gardens and allowing those energy consumers that would like to invest in renewable energy the opportunity to do so, the proposed legislation is not the best way to accomplish that goal," Gottschalk said.

Net metering allows a customer that generates renewable energy to fall back on the electric company in instances when the renewable energy source isn't generating enough power.

Current law says net metering is not intended to offset or provide credits for electricity consumption at another location controlled by the customer-generator, Gottschalk said. A solar garden acts as a customer-generator because it allows customers to buy shares in the garden to offset utility bills, Gottschalk argued.

Scott Benson of Lincoln Electric Systems said he didn't like including solar gardens in the net metering program because it would complicate the billing system and could increase costs for other customers.

He said LES was doing a study of its own on solar energy, and didn't think the bill was necessary. He added that the two megawatts of power the legislation would allow was far too large. He suggested 100 kilowatts per solar garden.

McGill later said she would work with the power companies on the amount of power such gardens should be allowed to generate.

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