In the race to lower carbon emissions amidst the ongoing climate crisis, a growing number of Omaha businesses are installing solar panels on their buildings in an effort to become more sustainable.

This increased emphasis on sustainability may be motivated by the rising demand for climate-conscious businesses among workers and customers. A 2021 poll by Pew Research found that 71% of millennials and 67% of Gen Zers say that climate should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations.

Millennials and Gen Zers make up 42% of the U.S. population, according to a 2020 Brookings Institution analysis of  U.S. Census Bureau data, and more than half the nation’s population are millennials or younger.

“There’s a strong business case [for sustainability] now,” said Craig Moody, co-owner and managing partner at Verdis Group, a sustainability consultancy that helps businesses develop strategies to reduce their impact on the climate.“This is a way to actually do well by doing good. Younger generations are more attuned to this issue than older generations typically. As those leadership transitions start to occur, and the younger generations are taking over leadership positions, they tend to be more knowledgeable about the need for this work.” 

Moody said the company, which he co-founded in 2009, experienced moderate growth in its first decade before seeing demand for its services rise swiftly in 2019. 

But it’s not just young people who support climate action. A 2023 study from the Pew Research Center found a majority of Americans now support the U.S. becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. 

Moody said solar panels are frequently part of the decarbonization plans of the businesses that Verdis consults for, as other methods of decreasing energy consumption are usually unable to reduce emissions to the point necessary to mitigate their impact on the climate.  

In a survey of 22 Lincoln businesses conducted as part of University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Carson Schwalbach’s senior thesis in 2019, 68% of respondents identified solar power as the form of renewable energy that interested them most for their businesses. 

Several institutions in Omaha have already invested in solar. The University of Nebraska Medical Center installed solar arrays on three buildings in its flagship campus in Omaha in December 2018. The 1,487 panel installation generates an average of over 30,000 kilowatts of electricity per month for the Michael F. Sorrell Center, Truhlsen Eye Institute, and Maurer Center for Public Health.  

“The energy that has been produced has been consumed on site at that building, and then whatever is not actually produced, right there is going to other buildings on campus,” said Jerrod Bley, sustainability manager at UNMC. “The goal is to offset electricity that we would otherwise be purchasing from OPPD.” 

Despite the size of the arrays, the electricity generated by the solar panels represents only 0.3% of the campus’ annual electricity usage.  

“It’s a massive, massive campus with very big, very tall buildings,” said Moody, who consulted on the project. “Hospitals are on the higher end of the spectrum when it comes to the amount of energy that they use per square foot. You got a very dense tall building, it doesn’t have a lot of roof space. So there’s just no physical space for them to put all the panels in.”

In 2010, UNMC and its clinical partner, Nebraska Medicine, adopted ambitious sustainability goals, which include net-zero carbon emissions, net-zero waste and net-zero water use by 2030.  

When UNMC and Nebraska Medicine set their emissions target, the Omaha campus was releasing around 154,000 metric tons of CO2 into the atmosphere annually. In the decade since, it’s been able to cut annual emissions by almost 25% to 116,000 metric tons of carbon a year.  

Bley said that while solar panels are a very small part of the medical center’s efforts to reach its net zero goals, the visibility of the arrays has been beneficial.

“There was a lot of promotion around [the solar array],” said Bley. “People know that we’ve made the investment as an institution … I think it has to some extent helped with both recruiting and retaining some talent. Students want to be part of an organization and a university that are really taking tangible and actionable steps toward [addressing] the climate crisis.” 

Dundee Bank installed a 30-panel solar array on the roof of its main branch in August 2020. 

“That was kind of the beginning of maybe more of a sustainable approach for the bank,” said Mandy Mellott, vice president of marketing for Dundee Bank and a member of its green committee. Mellott said the array now accounts for 55% of the branch’s electricity consumption. That large percentage is likely the result of the branch being a one-story office building, which Moody says has a fairly low energy consumption compared to more hospitals and multi-story buildings that are far more energy intensive. 

Hello Apartments, a 171-unit complex that is the latest addition to the Millwork Commons area in downtown Omaha, had a 70-panel solar array installed on its roof near the end of its construction in 2022. 

“Sustainable is kind of a common goal of that neighborhood,” said Aaron Kloke, development director for Bluestone Development Group, which owns and manages Hello Apartments. “What we tried to do is kind of follow through on that goal of sustainability and set a good example for future development in Omaha. So, you know, we can share our experience with others and say, ‘Hey, we’ve done solar panels, it wasn’t that hard.’” 

The solar array is only intended to power common spaces in the building, such as the lobby, fitness room, garage and office space, and so will reduce costs for the apartment complex but not tenants. 

In the fall of 2019, students at the all-girls Duchesne Academy of the Sacred Heart in Omaha led a push to install solar panels on the roof of their school. The 30-panel array, paid for by donors, was originally installed to offset the energy used by the school’s DREAM (Duchesne Research Engineering Art Media) Lab.  

The solar project is just one of many sustainability efforts the school has undertaken in recent years. In November 2022, they reached net-zero waste by diverting 90% of their trash through recycling, composting and other methods. They turned much of their school’s perimeter into gardens. Several of their courses also include, or center around, sustainability. 

For Eric Krakowski, assistant vice principal at Duchesne, these efforts are about more than shrinking the school’s carbon footprint. 

“Our hope is our students see what we’re doing, hear what we’re doing, learn about things in the classroom, have their eyes open to things going on in the world around them,” Krakowski said. “That’s the social awareness — that they see a need and that they feel driven, to some degree, in their own lives to act on that.” 

In 2022, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo installed a 168-panel solar array on the sloped, south-facing rooftop of its IMAX cinema. In a press release, the zoo projected that the panels would generate 116,000 kilowatt hours of electricity, a third of the building’s annual power requirements. The zoo previously installed a solar array on the Skyfari station near the African Grasslands Exhibit.

“Solar panels are just one way that the Zoo and Aquarium is committed to going green,” said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s president and CEO in the statement. “Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium strives to increase recycling and the reuse of materials, conserve energy and water, use green building methods, and practice environmentally preferable purchasing.”

A spokesperson said the zoo is actively developing a climate action plan to further reduce waste.

Kiewit Luminarium, a science museum that opened in April as part of Omaha’s riverfront revitalization, installed a solar array on its rooftop in partnership with OPPD. 

“[OPPD] was really great about providing consultation and insight into the solar panel array and how we could go about incorporating that in terms of our roof structure,” said Chris Stratman, community engagement manager for the Kiewit Luminarium. 

Stratman said that although the Luminarium’s solar array is not visible to museum visitors, they hope to raise awareness around renewable energy. 

“We’re all about exploration and discovery,” he said. “It’s really important to us that we’re communicating that to others and educating others about what we’re doing to try and increase interest and awareness.”

OPPD’s Trade Ally program includes a list of solar panel companies that have been trained and vetted. The power district offers a $2,000 rebate to businesses that install a solar array through one of their trade allies. 

“There’s no one solution,” said Bley, who emphasized that his views on the climate crisis are his own, and do not necessarily represent those of UNMC or Nebraska Medicine. “This is such a large, complex and overwhelming issue. Because it’s so different than business as usual, for any organization or any individual or household. You have to look at the full suite of options that are available that will reduce your energy and your carbon footprint.” 

Chris Bowling contributed to this report.

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