The Quest for Renewable Energy Sources

In the oil price shocked 1970s, America and other petroleum-dependent nations charted courses and policies they hoped would lead to greater utilization of renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power.

Boom and Bust

Nebraskans reacted the same way. By the early 1980s, solar panels could be found on the roofs of homes throughout the state. A few Nebraskans even invested in small-scale wind generators -the 1980s version of windmills or wind chargers that used to be a common feature on every Nebraska farmstead.

Then came the worldwide oil bust of the mid-1980s when a barrel of oil cost not $50 or $100 as predicted, but about $10 - $15. As America's domestic oil industry collapsed, the fledgling renewable energy industry followed suit.

As quickly as Americans and Nebraskans embraced energy efficiency and renewables, they reverted to their practices before oil embargoes as the price of oil plummeted. Despite dramatic increases in energy efficiency, the nation's petroleum addiction continues to mount.

Recent news accounts have focused on Americans switching from cars to less efficient trucks and utility vehicles. Are America and Nebraska making any headway on those renewable energy goals established two decades ago?

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A National Yardstick

New reports from federal and state energy sources provide some encouraging news.

The 1996 Renewable Energy Annual from the U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration found the nation's

total energy supply from renewable energy resources increased to an all-time high of 7.6 percent in 1995. Use of renewable energy has increased 2.2 percent annually since 1991. Comparatively, petroleum accounted for 38.3 percent of the total energy supply during the same period.

According to the report, conventional hydroelectric power accounts for about half of all renewable energy produced. About 40 percent comes from biomass resources that include wood, wood waste, peat, municipal solid waste, agricultural resources (including the production of ethanol), tires and miscellaneous gases, oils and wastes. The remaining ten percent is split among geothermal, solar and wind resources.

Local Echo

Use of renewable energy resources in Nebraska is about half the level of national use. According to the state's Energy Office, in 1995 an estimated three percent of all energy used in the state came from renewable sources. Five-sixths of the renewable energy came from conventional hydroelectric power. Slightly less than one-sixth came from ethanol used as a fuel additive in gasoline. Wind and solar power supplied the remainder.

Historically, use of renewable resources in Nebraska has grown at a pace similar to that of the nation. In 1993, only 2.5 percent of all energy used in the state came from renewable sources. Two percent came from hydroelectric while four-tenths of a percent came from ethanol. In 1994, the growth in ethanol use resulted in a near doubling to eight-tenths of a percent while hydropower remained constant at two percent.

Crystal Balling

The federal energy agency's report indicated the greatest gains in renewable energy would likely occur in less developed nations, not in the United States. Regions without existing electrical infrastructure represent a prime growth area for photovoltaic panels because installation is more economical than building power lines.

The ultimate outcome of deregulation of the electric industry may have substantial impacts on current and future renewable resources in America.

Some experts have suggested that utilities now required to purchase electricity from renewable resources may seek exemptions to those requirements. Since electricity from wind and solar sources tends to be more expensive than that from other sources, some utilities may try to cancel required renewable purchases as a means of competing in a cost-competitive deregulated environment.

To foster renewable energy development, others are proposing that federal or state deregulation policies require use of some electricity generated from renewable resources. Several bills being considered in Congress require just such a "renewables portfolio standard."

Total Energy Consumed by Fuel Type in 1995

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Source: Nebraska Energy Office
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Closer to Home A Triad of Options

While promising, Nebraska's renewable horoscope is unclear. The three brightest hopes continue to be ethanol, wind and solar. Each renewable option has strengths and weaknesses.

The state's unparalleled success remains ethanol production. Over time, Nebraskans have traded increased use for increased production. In a series of policy decisions, state leaders decreased incentives for using imported ethanol by removing price incentives at the gas pump and increased incentives for producing ethanol from local grains. This strategy vaulted Nebraska into the third largest ethanol producing state.

However, further gains in either production or consumption are uncertain. A few states have matched or exceeded Nebraska's ethanol production incentives. As a result, new plant construction has shifted to other states. Expansions of current facilities remain an option, since this is a cheaper alternative to constructing new facilities. Federal tax policies on ethanol will be the determining factor in continued growth of this industry.

Increasing in-state use of ethanol may also be ultimately determined by state or federal policies. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency recently said Nebraska was not a source for air pollution in states to the east. If the federal

agency had determined Nebraska was a pollution source, vehicles in the state might have been required to use less polluting gasoline that included oxygenates such as ethanol.

In 1997, state legislators considered a law that would set minimum goals for ethanol additives in gasoline. The legislative session ended before final action could be taken on this proposal. It will probably be considered again in the 1998 session of the Unicameral.

More Than Hot Air?

As of today, the energy potential in Nebraska's winds remains just that a potential. Nine different sites across the state are being evaluated for placement of wind turbines. No utilities are currently generating electricity from wind, but interest in its potential remains high.

Not until July 1994 near Ainsworth, did the latest round of wind monitoring get underway. Nebraska Public Power District and KBR Rural Public Power District began studying wind speeds and turbulence at a site 5 1/2 miles from Ainsworth.

Less than a year later, a consortium of utilities, interest groups and the state's Energy Office, began a three-year study of eight sites from Wahoo to Kimball. This study is expected to end in 1998. First year results indicated that six of the eight sites have good near-term potential for wind generation development according to experts who studied the data collected.

Today, four Nebraska utilities Nebraska Public Power District, Lincoln Electric System, the Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska and the City of Grand Island are negotiating with the Electric Power Research Institute for partial funding to install two 750 kilowatt state-of-the-art wind turbines.

"This project will help participants learn the most cost-effective ways to use wind turbines as part of their electric generating mix. It is a significant step in learning how well renewable wind energy will complete in Nebraska," said John McClure of Nebraska Public Power District.

According to sources working on the project, the turbines will likely be located near Springview in north central Nebraska. The Springview site had one of the top profiles for wind generation of the nine sites currently being studied.

One of the purposes of the project is to evaluate the performance, reliability and cost of the latest design of wind turbines. If the new turbines operate as designed, the anticipated electrical output would be equivalent to that used each year by 350 residential customers, slightly more than the population of Springview.

If the project proceeds, the wind turbines are expected to be operational in late 1998.

The Sun Shines On

The best hope for gains in solar power remains in remote sections of the state where installation of photovoltaic panels make more economic sense than building power lines.

For more than five years, several rural electric systems such as McCook Public Power District and Northwest Rural Public Power District, based in Hay Springs, have pioneered in placing photovoltaic systems used to power fencing systems in remote ranching locations. Small solar cells charge batteries when the sun is shining.

Now, larger and more expensive applications are being tested that do not rely on battery storage.

Near Ainsworth, on the 4,200 acre Pinney Ranch photovoltaic panels that power water pumps began operating in April. This renewable energy test is part of a much larger project that is one of five in the nation undertaken by farming, utility and conservation groups to test more efficient and environmentally-sound ways of cattle ranching.

The Pinney Ranch test involves both stationary and mobile solar panel arrays. "This project allows the farmers to make the best use of their resources, and also brings together a unique group of organizations to help Nebraska's rural economy," said Larry Liss from Nebraska Public Power District, one of the cooperating utilities.

Others involved in the Pinney Ranch project include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Upper Loup Natural Resource District, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, Farm Service Agency, The Sandhill Task Force, KBR Rural Public Power District, Ducks Unlimited, Pheasants Forever and Nebraska Electric Generation and Transmission.

This is not the first time solar power units have been tested for use in livestock watering. In 1995, Wheat Belt Public Power District in Sidney was testing photovoltaic units on the ranch of one of the utility's customers.

In the late 1980s, a ranch near Thedford tested photovoltaic water pumping systems that utilized alternating current pumps. The water pumping test failed when equipment problems with the inverters proved insurmountable.

Current state-of-the-art solar technology being used on ranching rangelands in Nebraska is very reliable compared to the technology that was tested in the late 1980s.

Return to the Summer 1997 Newsletter