Nebraska Becomes the First Red State to Set a Decarbonization Target

Nebraska Becomes the First Red State to Set a Decarbonization Target
Get ready to see a lot more of these in Nebraska. (Photo: Nati Harnik, AP)

The clean energy revolution has come to the heartland. Nebraska became the first red state in the U.S. with a goal of completely cleaning up its electric grid on Thursday. The plan has a few areas where it needs to be shored up and is by no means a slam dunk — but it’s certainly a life raft amid the conservative anti-climate policy maelstrom.

The Nebraska Public Power District’s board of directors voted yes on a goal of getting the grid to net zero emissions by 2050. The district is the largest electric utility in the state, and the board is democratically elected. The strategic directive the board signed off on via a 9 to 2 vote sets “the goal of achieving ‘net zero’ carbon emissions from NPPD’s generation resources by 2050.

This will be achieved by continuing the use of proven, reliable generation until alternative, reliable sources of generation are developed and by using certified offsets, energy efficiency projects, lower or zero carbon emission generation resources, beneficial electrification projects, or other economic and practical technologies that help NPPD meet the adopted goal at costs that are equal to, or lower than, then-current resources.”

So first, the good news. Having a climate goal, any climate goal in a deep red state like Nebraska is a solid toehold for addressing the root cause of climate change. The state’s entire Congressional delegation is Republican as is its governor. The state legislature features a supermajority of Republicans. From these fundamentals, any type of reasonable climate policy might seem like a long shot. That the state’s big utility has a climate goal and that it was set by a board elected by the same folks voting in state elections means something, even in the face of the Republican intransigence — and even outright hostility — seen elsewhere.

The state’s two other major utilities (which are also publicly owned) have also passed decarbonization goals. That means all Nebraskans are slated to see an increasing share of carbon-free electricity in the coming decades. That rules, especially in a state that has widespread wind energy potential. A Department of Energy analysis puts the Cornhusker State’s potential wind capacity at 465,000 megawatts, ranking it eighth in the entire United States. Tapping that potential would allow the state to clean up its grid, which federal data shows currently gets 51% of its power from coal.

But I am sorry to inform you that this directive also needs some work to truly be transformational. For one, 2050 is way late to the decarbonization ballgame. President Joe Biden has set a goal of a grid that runs on 100% clean energy by 2035. Not only is the timeline too late, but the directive also contains no intermediate goals. Without progress checkpoints between now and 2050, it essentially amounts to a pinky swear.

Net zero is also a bit of a weasel phrase that opens the door to carbon accounting trickery for fossil fuels. The directive’s call for using “proven, reliable generation until alternative, reliable sources of generation are developed” is also a red flag. It could open the door to natural gas taking the place of coal since it’s less carbon-intensive, or for coal plants to promise to clean up their act using unproven carbon capture technology.

I don’t mean to completely throw cold water on the vote. But as with so many things climate, nearly every level of government seems to settle on half measures to solve the crisis wrought by burning fossil fuels. Scrutiny is vital to ensure that the world collective ramps its ambition up. So cheers to you, publicly owned utilities of Nebraska. Now, what’s the next?