Published in the Lincoln Journal Star
By: Ken Winston
Public power is a good thing, and the Lincoln Electric System (LES) does a good job, with low electric rates and reliable service. LES’s investments in renewable energy save money for its customer-owners while benefiting the environment.
On the other hand, LES needs its customer-owners to be engaged if it is to live up to its mission statement — being “a progressive leader, partnering with the community to maximize energy value and quality of life in an environmentally responsible manner” — and every public entity should be open to improvement. There is a public hearing on LES’ budget and rates this Thursday at the LES Service Center, 2620 Fairfield St. I encourage people to come out to learn about LES’ proposed budget and make comments.
My concern: LES’ proposal to cut the funding for its successful Sustainable Energy Program (SEP) in half. SEP provides funds for energy efficiency improvements for homes and businesses. I understand why LES is proposing this reduction, since demand for the program is down. However, the need is not.
We are facing two major challenges that need attention now: climate change and increasing levels of poverty in our community. The negative impacts of climate change are well documented and so extensive they deserve a column of their own.
The 2017 Lincoln Vital Signs report found that the number of people in poverty in Lincoln had increased by 45 percent in the previous decade. Fortunately, renewable energy and energy efficiency provide cost-effective methods of mitigating the impacts of climate change, and we live in a strong community with many resources that can be used to assist people living in poverty.
Energy use in heating and cooling buildings is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that accelerate climate change. The Rocky Mountain Institute has found that increasing building energy efficiency is a key component in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Programs like SEP are an important tool in this effort.
Instead of cutting the funding for the SEP program, LES could develop a energy-efficiency assistance program for low-income households. Community Action administers a program like this, but they have a waiting list of eligible clients — and some people are unable to use their program due to regulatory limitations.
LES has considered creating an energy-efficiency program to assist low income residents. They have dedicated staff that can make use of best practices from other programs across the country to make it successful.
Increasing energy efficiency provides benefits for all concerned. Lower bills and healthier homes provide immediate benefits to the individuals involved, many of whom are elderly or families with small children. Energy-efficiency projects provide jobs that cannot be outsourced and help local businesses. And helping reduce people’s energy bills means fewer disconnects for the utility, fewer bills that go unpaid and fewer costs that must be covered by other customers.
My Christian faith says that we have a moral obligation to stand up for those in need in our community, the “least of these” among us. Maintaining funding from the SEP program would provide help for more people in need while simultaneously helping mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Finally, I am concerned about whether the public has been fully engaged in this process. LES does many good things and it would benefit both LES and its customer-owners to hear from each other. The SEP program is an important resource for the community and deserves to be maintained. Let’s work together to help LES better represent all of Lincoln’s residents and its needs and values.
Ken Winston is the Outreach and Policy Director of Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light, a nonpartisan interfaith organization dedicated to bringing diverse faith messages to address climate change and care of creation.