How Public Power Advocates Helped Win a Major Victory for Renewables in Rural America

Hard work by environmentalists has helped turn low-turnout utility board elections into a vehicle for change in Nebraska

By Mackenzie Brown, Municipal Utilities Intern

In 2020, 58% of Nebraska voters chose Donald Trump. Both the state’s U.S. Senators, all three Members of Congress, and its Governor and Lieutenant Governor are Republican, a party that has taken steps to block renewable energy and action on climate change at the federal, state and local level. Despite this partisan environment, the state’s major utilities have all committed to a goal of 100% net-zero emissions by 2050, making it the first red state to do so. How was this accomplished?

One piece of the puzzle lies in how Nebraska structures its power system.  Nebraska is unique in that it is the only state that has a 100% publicly-owned electric system. Instead of being composed of investor-owned utilities motivated by profit and governed by state and federal regulators, the state’s various municipal and rural electric providers are governed by democratically elected boards. This system was put in place during a populist era of the state’s history during the 1930’s-40’s, when ideas of public ownership were gaining popularity. 

This system puts the power to control Nebraska’s utilities into the hands of voters, and gives environmentalists and renewable energy advocates a unique opportunity. Decisions regarding their electric utilities are controlled by elected or appointed boards, which means anti-renewable members can often be challenged directly at the ballot box, as we’ve seen happen in recent years.  This is in contrast to other states, where advocates usually have to hold large utility companies  accountable indirectly, via statewide regulators or state legislators.  Since 2015, local environmental groups like the Sierra Club and Nebraska Conservation Voters have been organizing and fundraising around these races, an investment that has paid off. 

The first of Nebraska’s utilities to commit to renewables was the Omaha Public Power District, which, after an election in Summer 2019 added two new Directors to create a pro-renewable majority, voted unanimously to commit to 100% net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. The Lincoln Electric System board, which is appointed by the mayor, was soon to follow suit, committing to a 100% net-zero by 2040 in November 2020. Combined, these utilities already serve over 518,700 customers, a considerable portion of Nebraska’s population. Most recently this December, the Nebraska Public Power District, a rural provider serving over 600,000 Nebraskans, joined the movement by voting 9-2 to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050. The 2020 NPPD board election, which saw two new directors added, was the most expensive in the board’s history, with $175,000 being contributed by renewable energy advocates, industry professionals, and everyone in between. 

While these commitments are important, there are some caveats for those excited about a transition to renewables in the state. The utilities have all committed to net-zero emissions, which isn’t the same thing as switching entirely to renewables, as it leaves the potential for usage of carbon capture or carbon credits, both of which have their own issues. Additionally, the goal of net-zero by 2040 in Lincoln doesn’t have interim goals, and as for Omaha and NPPD, it’s likely that net-zero by 2050 would have happened regardless of commitment due to the takeoff of wind energy in the state and the rising cost of coal plant operations. Despite these drawbacks, they’re still a major win for environmentalists in the state that should be celebrated.

There are a few lessons that can be learned from these victories in Nebraska. The first is that conservative states or regions shouldn’t – and can’t – be written off when it comes to the fight for a just transition. In Nebraska, a jobs message was used to great effect in several utilities, because voters could see the writing on the wall: wind energy is becoming more and more popular in the state and overtaking coal and other fossil fuels. 

Secondly, these victories have shown the power of under-the-radar utility decisions. While Nebraska has more public power than most parts of the country, many communities across the US have utilities that are owned by an elected leader or board – be it through cooperative utilities, state public service commissions, or city council elections. Many of these positions have little name recognition and low voter turnout (although this may be changing- see the 2020 NPPD board race and its jump in fundraising), but the people elected to these positions are making decisions that are vital to the clean energy transition. 

Often nonpartisan, these public power board races also sometimes allow advocates to sidestep partisan polarization and advance energy goals even in areas where electing Democratic representatives might be a major uphill battle.Voters in a conservative area might be unwilling to elect a Democrat to city council, but may very well be interested in a board candidate who is running on clean energy jobs in a nonpartisan election – even if they have the same position. Nebraska is a key example of this. While voters’ partisan identity (whether they consider themselves a Republican or Democrat) tends to be rigid and difficult to change at an individual level, opinions on specific policies can often be more malleable due to changing framing and conditions, as well as political parties changing their position on issues over time. Examples of progressive policies passed in conservative states- such as free college in Tennessee, public banking in North Dakota, and monthly payouts via the Alaska Permanent Fund- show us that these policies are often popular even among conservatives, and become controversial when they become associated with a particular political party. This is on top of the fact that partisanship is often less relevant in hyper-local races in the first place, where the decisions, even if they have a big impact, are often seen as decoupled from a national agenda. All this paves the way for a potential pathway to clean energy by taking advantage of non-partisan or less-partisan municipal civic engagement around public utilities and energy decisions.

Nebraska has shown how this strategy can work, and pay big dividends. Congrats Nebraska!