Gerald McNerney lives a green life.
His La Vista home has 50 solar panels that in the summer produce so much power that Omaha Public Power District pays him. The house runs exclusively on electricity and can draw energy from batteries that could power the house for two weeks without connecting to the grid. His family drives electric cars, his power tools are electric and the family composts.
And he is planning to construct a new building for his HVAC contracting business, Sustainable Mechanical, near Costco and use solar panels to power it and make its energy consumption net zero, but he needs La Vista to change its zoning laws in order to do so.
“We want to mimic (sustainability) through our business in that we try to suggest sustainable solutions,” he said.
La Vista’s Planning Commission unanimously approved Thursday a recommendation to the City Council to update the city’s zoning ordinances.
The city’s ordinances regulating solar panels have not been updated since 2001 and only allow for solar systems in residential districts, but the technology and aesthetics of the panels has advanced a lot since then and the new rules would allow for solar systems in all zoning districts, with some restrictions and guidelines.
The city’s comprehensive plan includes a goal to promote environmental sustainability, and the City Council will hold a first reading on the changes during its Feb. 4 meeting.
The process started about a year ago when McNerney went to the city for a permit to install ground-mounted solar panels, a meter and transformer as the first phase of the business’ new location. He was denied because of the current regulations.
He worked with the city and went to a Planning Commission meeting this fall to ask city leaders to amend the zoning laws to eliminate hurdles for residents and business owners.
McNerney’s desire to live a sustainable life is based on a desire to provide a better future for his three children, pointing to grim reports about what climate change and pollution mean for the future.
“If that’s what we’re saying that’s not a future that I’m willing to accept,” he said. “So what can I do in my personal life?”
McNerney said he views solar panels as an investment in the value in his home and a way to mitigate the rising cost of electricity.
Solar panels are expensive to install, but there is a federal tax credit on installation costs and McNerney said economies of scale and research will improve the efficiency and cost effectiveness of solar energy systems.
“It’s kind of a dead spot here in the Midwest,” he said. “As it becomes more popular and more cost effective and there’s more people that install it, it will be more competitive.”
Papillion allows for use in agriculture, rural residential and industrial properties and requires permits for residential and commercial but does not allow for solar panels in office buildings or the city’s downtown.
(Papillion’s City Council had a resolution scheduled for Tuesday’s meeting to place a moratorium on solar permits to allow for the city’s code to be updated.)
Bellevue allows solar in all zoning districts with a permit and Gretna only allows solar in residential areas with a permit and along its Interstate 80 zoning jurisdiction.
McNerney has met other homeowners in the area who have installed solar energy systems and said those homeowners are a great resource, along with online research, for anyone considering to do the same.
“The best resource is people that have done it,” he said. “Network with homeowners that have done it because a lot of the lessons learned can be put out there.”