Workers install panels on Lincoln Electric System's community solar project in 2016. Credit: Eric Gregory/The Journal-Star via AP

A pair of bills now before the Nebraska legislature would provide a new potential funding source for community solar projects, and mandate that utilities allow community solar projects initiated by their customers.

LB 610 would explicitly allow the Nebraska Environmental Trust to consider issuing grants to community solar projects. The trust’s funds, coming from a portion of the state’s lottery proceeds, amount to roughly $16 million yearly.

Ken Winston drafted the bill last year, when he was an aide to former Sen. Ken Haar, who reached the end of his term last spring. Haar is a vocal proponent of clean energy. Winston is now a lobbyist for Bold Alliance, a network of small activist organizations active in land and water preservation.

“We kept hearing that projects didn’t happen because they didn’t cash (out) well,” Winston said. “People needed additional funding. The idea is to … reduce one of reasons communities don’t do things like this.”

Solar energy has been growing recently in Nebraska, and community-solar projects are underway in several communities. But Winston and the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Rick Kolowski, hope to kick it up a notch.

Kolowski said that, “Nationally, and compared to other parts of the world, we might be seen as behind in Nebraska in solar aspects. We thought it was really the right time for this.” He said he is optimistic about the bill’s chances, in large part because it won’t be a drain on the state’s general fund.

“Without this costing us anything,” he said, “it makes it a lot more palatable to a lot of people.”

Kolowski’s legislative aide, Tom Green, said that Nebraska is facing a budget crunch. “That’s why we targeted the trust: A pool of money exists, and it’s earmarked for projects like this.”

The bill is scheduled for a committee hearing on Feb. 22, Green said. And so far, he said he hasn’t heard of any opposition.

While the current bill would not require the trust’s board to give money to proposed community solar projects, it would expressly permit the board to do so. Qualifying projects, according to the trust’s web site, are those impacting habitat, surface and ground water, waste management, air quality and soil management.

The other community solar bill, known as the Shared Community Solar Act, essentially legalizes community solar projects and requires utilities to allow them. The community solar projects so far completed or under development in Nebraska in most cases are the property of utilities, according to Kristen Gottschalk, the government-relations director for the Nebraska Rural Electric Association.

LB 626 requires the state’s utilities to “establish a shared community solar energy generating system pilot program upon receipt of a request by a qualified organization of customer-generators.”

Gottschalk said it was unclear why the bill requires a community solar project to be structured as a pilot project. The bill’s sponsored Sen. Tyson Larson, did return calls for comment.

The bill also stipulates that utilities “shall limit the program in a way that allows the local distribution utility to conduct a meaningful study of the program and its results.” It suggests that utilities might limit the number of community-solar projects, or the amount of power they could produce.

The bill also allows third parties to “finance, build, own or operate” a solar garden, and makes clear that owners of a community solar project do not constitute a utility.

Winston said he’s hopeful that community solar can make some headway during the current session.

Over the summer, he said, he staffed a committee studying climate change impacts on Nebraska, “and one of the things we did was look at potential opportunities. All of the messages we got at the hearings were positive. People were like, ‘We want more opportunities. We would like solar in our community.’

“I really feel like the time is right for something to happen.”

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.