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Golden rays of sun broke through the clouds Friday morning just in time to shine on the ceremonial cutting of a blue satin ribbon at the site of Nebraska’s first commercial solar energy park just west of Lincoln.

“Today in a fundamental sense, is about the sun, how we use the sun and man’s relationship to the sun,” Lincoln Mayor Chris Beutler said. “The city of Lincoln is very proud of what LES has accomplished here.”

With the 5-megawatt facility online, Lincoln Electric System now gets a third of its power generation from renewable sources, a third from coal and the final third from natural gas, Lincoln Electric System CEO Kevin Wailes said.

Politicians, LES board members and utility executives attended the dedication ceremony at the facility just west of Lincoln, and it was broadcast live on the Cube in the West Haymarket’s Railyard, where about 40 people watched.

The large screen offered a prime view of the event, but trucks making deliveries to nearby restaurants and bars sometimes made it difficult to hear the speeches.

The utility then gave two tours of the solar farm, busing people from the Railyard out to the 46-acre site on West Holdrege Street near Northwest 75th Street.

The community solar project is owned by Oakland, California-based developer Enerparc. LES has a 20-year contract to buy power from the company. The $8.9 million solar park has 15,333 solar panels, 19 miles of direct current cabling, 3.5 miles of alternating current cabling and 60 inverters.

The property on which it is built is leased from Ellen and Gary Hellerich, who farm the surrounding fields.

"We harvest the corn. We harvest the soybeans and now we harvest the sun," Gary Hellerich said in an interview at the site.

Beutler said the solar park is an example of the close working relationship between the community and public utility.

LES began to explore solar options at the urging of customers after surveying the community. To help gauge interest, LES created SunShares, a program that lets customers pay a little more on their bills to support solar efforts. More than 1,200 customers signed up to do so.

Gaye Mason, one of the SunShare members who watched the ceremony from the Railyard, said she’s proud of Nebraska’s heritage of public power. She sees the new solar park as the next step in that progressive tradition.

“It’s time to carry on with that vision of sustainability,” she said. “I would hope in the future it’s no longer a political issue.”

There are challenges, Mason said, but they shouldn’t divert from the goal of environmental and energy sustainability.

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LES’ board voted unanimously on Friday to move forward with a new virtual solar net metering program. The program, which is still in the planning stages, will let customers buy a portion of the solar park’s output for the remaining life of the 20-year contract and have it offset their own power use.

For a limited time, SunShares participants will be allowed to credit their previous contributions toward virtual net-metering enrollment fees.

The program will let people buy a panel at the community solar park and get credit for the electricity it produces at the same rate as someone who installs solar panels on their house. Actual ownership will remain with the developer, but the customer will get credit for the electricity as if he or she owned the panel.

Bob Dvorak, another Lincoln SunShares subscriber, said he can’t install solar panels on his house so he’s excited to be able to benefit through virtual net metering.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry equated development of the solar park to a form of economic, environmental and energy diplomacy.

"LES’ commitment to expanding its portfolio of renewable resources is building a bridge to a more sustainable future and providing an extraordinary example for the rest of America,” the 1st District congressman said.

Construction began on the solar farm in March and it went online in late June, producing enough electricity to power about 900 homes.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7304 or nbergin@journalstar.com.

 On Twitter @ljsbergin.

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