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When Lincoln Electric System officials launched their solar energy program in August, they had high hopes for a good showing of customer support. Two months later, they're surprised by what they see as a low rate of buy-in.

After promotion through the LES website, social media and meetings with neighborhood and civic groups, 575 customers -- mostly individuals -- have signed up for the program, raising a total of $3,350.

LES asked residential customers to pay an extra $3 per month through their electric bills. Businesses could determine their monthly level of participation based on their annual energy use.

The utility urged customers to sign up by Sept. 30, so it could factor customer support into its decision to build a community solar farm, possibly up to 10 megawatts in size, generating enough electricity to power about 2,500 homes a year.

"If they want to influence (the size of) the system, they have to sign up by Sept. 30," LES board chairwoman Marilyn McNabb said.

Customers can continue to sign up through the life of the project -- anticipated to be 20 years, said spokeswoman Kelley Porter.

LES management is reviewing proposals from nine developers. A decision on the size and location of the project is expected later this year, said Scott Benson, manager of resources and transmission planning.

All of the proposals were for projects in and around Lincoln, Benson said. Construction of the solar farm is set for next year.

Last week, several LES board members questioned the sign-up numbers. Some thought they should be much higher, based on the lobbying by environmental groups and solar energy enthusiasts.

"Despite the low numbers, I think there's strong public support for moving into solar," McNabb said.

"We may have underestimated how many poor people there are in Lincoln for whom $3 a month is a sacrifice."

John Atkeison, energy policy director for the Nebraska Wildlife Federation, said the numbers should not be interpreted as a lack of support for solar energy.

"The bottom line is that there is every indication that people want more of their electricity to come from solar power, and they trust LES to phase it in an appropriate manner," he said.

Atkeison has appeared before the LES board numerous times, asking the utility to consider adding solar energy to its power generation portfolio. He said launching a sign-up program may have been a misstep.

"I think calling it out as a separate program is not what people expected or wanted. They want LES to just do it," Atkeison said. "I think the response is a judgment on the program but not on solar power."

He said that if LES spread out the cost of a solar farm to all customers, "it would not even have to be $3."

The Nebraska Wildlife Federation reached out to its members, urging them to sign up for the program, Atkeison said, but the group does not have a way of tracking the number of members who did.

McNabb said most other environmental groups that urged the board to build a community solar energy project also reached out to their memberships.

"The board stands strongly in support of this program and all of us signed up immediately," said McNabb, who signed up to add $50 to her monthly bill.

Payments don't start till Jan. 1, Porter said.

People who don't have an LES account can support the program by making a one-time contribution, Porter said.

For more information about the solar energy program and how to sign up, visit les.com.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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