SOUTH SIOUX CITY — Lance Hedquist tries to maintain a sunny disposition when it comes to renewable energy in South Sioux City.

The latest shining example of the northeast Nebraska town’s increasing effort to reduce its carbon footprint is a 21-acre solar park south of the city alongside C Avenue comprised of more than 1,200 solar panels.

“We started up operation in January of this year,” Hedquist, the longtime city administrator, said.

The yet-to-be-named solar park produces 2.3 megawatts of capacity, enough to meet 5 percent of the city's total electrical needs.

“We think this is positive for the environment and positive for the ratepayers in our community,” Hedquist said. “It’s a positive for the greenhouse gases — solar doesn’t emit greenhouse gases —and it will replace primarily coal burning facilities.”

The city's massive solar array was built by California-based SolarCity, a subsidiary of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors and America’s largest full service solar provider. Hedquist said it took about four months to build the array. It was privately financed, with the city supplying the land.

"What SolarCity and Tesla intend to do is combine solar panels with energy storage,” Hedquist said. "The problems with renewables is energy storage — the wind doesn’t always blow or the sun is not always out when you need it — so when you get battery storage coverage, which we expect will take place in five to 10 years, then the value of solar and wind will greatly be enhanced and much more desirable for the public."

Working alongside SolarCity was Trinity Electrical Services, a North Sioux City-based business owned by Gregg Lamoreux. 

"It was great to have that to put on a resume," Lamoreux said. "We've done some solar projects in the past, but it was definitely by far the largest one we've done." 

This was the first project in Nebraska for SolarCity, which installs solar panels coast-to-coast, and Hedquist thinks this is the second-largest solar array in the state, trailing only a 46-acre solar energy project east of Lincoln.

Lamoreux noted the solar industry is huge in Arizona, California and Nevada; however, he thinks the industry is set to make gains in the Midwest in the near future.

"It's coming this way and it's great for us to gain that experience and look at different ways of powering the community," he said. "It's great for us to be on the cutting-edge for when the technology starts to take a foothold here in the Siouxland area we're going to be ready for that." 

Hedquist said the South Sioux City Council took bids on the solar panel project two years ago and that it’s just one step in the city’s plan to eventually have more than 50 percent of its energy needs provided by renewable means.

In the past, South Sioux City, which operates its own municipal utility, purchased all of its electricity from Nebraska Public Power District, the Cornhusker State’s largest electric utility. NPPD generates 42 percent of its power from nuclear energy, 32.5 percent from coal, with the remainder coming from wind, hydropower, gas/oil and purchases from other sources.

Hedquist said South Sioux City is slowly phasing out of its contract with NPPD. It plans to be independent of the utility by 2022, which is another reason the city is building up its renewable infrastructure.

In addition to the 5 percent from solar, future plans call for South Sioux City to purchase 7 percent of its power from hydroelectric sources, another 7 percent from under-construction Green Star Gasifiers and 33 percent from Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources LLC via the Cottonwood Wind Farm, a project currently under construction in Webster County.

Green Star Gasifiers is a subsidiary of the Green Star Energy group, the firm building a $25 million plant in the city’s Roth Industrial Park that will have the capability to use multiple sources of fuel, including wood waste, municipal solid waste (garbage), construction and demolition waste, and agricultural waste such as cornstalks, to make electricity.

Once all of those entities are in place, 52 percent of the electricity used to power South Sioux City will have originated from renewable sources, which also brings with it significant cost savings, Hedquist noted.

Environmentalism is strong in South Sioux City where city officials drive electric vehicles and school children discuss clean energy on visits to city hall.

“We ask them, ‘How many want to see more coal plants?’ You don’t see any hands up. You ask them, ‘How many want to see nuclear plants?’ You don’t see any hands. We ask them, ‘How many want to see renewables?’ and every hand is up,” Hedquist said. “They are just solid behind renewables.”

Hedquist said the community’s affection for renewables is contagious. The city is working with the South Sioux City Community Schools system to also make the solar park a learning opportunity for the system's 3,850 students.

“Interestingly enough, we are also putting in monitors in all of our school systems, so grade school kids or high school kids can see how much is being produced at any given time,” Hedquist said. “We see that as a positive thing on the education side; we’re glad to work with the schools to get that done.”

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