Listening to the Future: Omaha Public Power District Works on Maintaining Clean, Renewable Energy

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Nebraska Wind Inventory - June 2014192.79 KB

By John Atkeison and Bruce E. Johansen 

Omaha Public Power District is Nebraska’s leader in the use of wind power to make electricity, and thanks to a decision by its board of directors, it has maintained the ability to retain that ranking. On June 19 the OPPD board unanimously adopted a plan that maintains a level of clean renewable energy power equal to at least one-third of its generated electricity for twenty years, among other things.

The board and management was responding to years of hearing from the customer-owners of Omaha Public Power District, to regulation by the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the encroaching reality of climate changes caused by global warming, a major cause of which is the greenhouse gas pollution produced in the process of making electricity.

And contrary to the cynical predictions of some in the utility industry, rates are projected to rise less than 2 percent, if at all. It is not really surprising, given that utility-scale wind farms now produce electricity at a price equal to or less than coal-fired power plants.

Another less sexy aspect of the plan will help reduce not only rates but also electric bills. When a utility implements programs that help its customers use less energy, these are called demand-side management (DSM) or energy-efficiency (EE) measures. OPPD has committed to enough of these programs (three hundred megawatts worth) to replace roughly one-half the capacity of its North Omaha Station.

The North Omaha power plant is the other big story of this plan. It is one of the few urban plants to burn coal as its primary fuel, and this plant’s pollution has been under increasing pressure from community members and environmentalists. Under the new plan, coal burning will be phased out. Three of the station’s five generating units will be retired by 2016, and the remaining two units are slated for conversion to burning natural gas by 2023. There are still substantial amounts of money to be spent on interim pollution controls on these two units by 2016, and that may total many tens of millions of dollars.

OPPD’s other aging power plant, the first of two coal-fired plants at Nebraska City, is scheduled for similar pollution abatement upgrades and will also require millions of dollars of investment.

These three elements of the new strategic plan—wind and other renewable energy capacity, reduction of the total need for electricity, and modernization of the existing generation fleet of power plants—represent a sea change in the way Nebraska’s largest urban utility operates. It is the first step, and a large one, down a path that other public power utilities will explore in the immediate future.

The Wind Story

When the Grand Prairie Wind farm is completed in 2016, OPPD will be generating 33 percent of its electricity from wind.

Nebraska is a top-tier state when it comes to wind power, ranking third in the USA in its potential to make electricity, yet utilities have been slow to utilize this advantage. As of June 2014, OPPD has one-half the capacity of wind farms in the entire state: 368 megawatts of the 733 megawatts of capacity spinning in Nebraska. When all the wind farms that are under utility contract are completed in late 2015, OPPD will still remain the leader in the state with 813 of 1,308 megawatts of capacity.

Chart of Wind Generation by Nebraska Utility

How Did It Happen?

The people power that made this historic change of direction possible came from outside as well as inside OPPD. Organizations like Nebraska Wildlife Federation, Nebraska Sierra Club, and Sierra’s Beyond Coal Campaign joined with civic groups including Nebraskans for Peace, League of Women Voters, and Malcom X Foundation, with faith-based organizations such as Nebraska Interfaith Power & Light and Omaha Together One Community (OTOC), plus many independent activists.

OPPD itself is a large and complex organization that is part of an industry in the midst of radical change. There are traditionalists and advocates for a realistic view of global warming swimming in the currents of the influence of the investor-owned utility culture on the public power culture. One thing that is clear is that the ideas that became the new plan had vigorous champions inside OPPD.

The plan specifics are based on the input the OPPD management team received during their stakeholders process, management’s best judgment about the future regulatory environment, and the utility’s view of their responsibility under Nebraska Public Power law.

When OPPD asked its customer-owners’ opinions through this stakeholders pro-
cess, they were told that it is exactly clean renewables like wind and solar power that people want. This was the high point of this spring’s process.

So Why Now?

What has motivated this rise in the interest in clean renewable power among citizens and utility managers?

In the neighborhoods across America where coal-fired power plants sit, there has been a rising volume of voices calling for the closure of the plants that are responsible for unhealthy pollution. Asthma and heart disease are two of the hazards traced to coal-fired plants; another major pollutant is mercury, a potent neurotoxin.

Price trends in recent years are another factor. Wind power is now directly competitive with coal-fired electricity, and the cost of both wind and solar continue to fall as the costs of fossil fuel and nuclear rise, even under conventional accounting, which excludes cost to the environment as an “externality”—that is, a factor that remains “off the books.”

Enter global warming, the most expensive calamity the human race has ever faced. A series of sobering reports during the past six months are well summarized by the opening words of the American National Climate Assessment: “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience… This assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.” (http://bit.ly/Nca2014Overview)

The climate disruptions and extremely extreme weather Americans have begun to experience are mostly due to the process of global warming, which is mainly caused by the extra greenhouse gases people have added to the atmosphere. (http://bit.ly/SksDiscussDice1) Even more extreme and hostile changes will arrive well within the lifetimes of most people alive today. (http://bit.ly/Daily CLubchencoLovejoy)

The single largest source of greenhouse gases pollution in the United States comes from making the electricity we depend on. Radical change in the way the electric generation industry has functioned for a century is on the agenda of every electric utility in the country and the world, and has been for twenty years, because we simply cannot cope with the disruption of our climate without reducing and eliminating this source of greenhouse gases.

This also sets up the next big challenge for utilities. Conventional wisdom holds that while coal is the most important source of greenhouse pollution, natural gas will serve as a “bridge fuel” to carry us over to the clean wind and solar power of tomorrow, because burning gas produces around half the CO2 compared to burning coal.

Is that sufficient? It might have been back in the 1970s when some scientists warned that we were on track to start the irreversible melt of parts of Antarctica, the beginning of which has just been documented. (http://bit.ly/NytSoPoleMeltNoReturn) It might have sufficed in the 1980s when another scientist, Dr. Jim Hansen, formally warned Congress that global warming had become a detectable force and that we were in grave danger.

Is natural gas a dangerous bridge to nowhere today? The natural gas burned in power plants is mostly methane, which is a greenhouse gas that is eighty-four times as potent as CO2. And studies done in recent years show that there is a large amount of gas released in waste and leakage in the process of drilling, fracking, and closing wells, and distributing the gas. Credible scientists assert that the sum of the effects of these releases is that using gas is worse than using coal as a fuel. (http://bit.ly/HowarthMethane20140515)

It is past time to plan the end of the intentional production of greenhouse gases. With this new strategic plan, Omaha Public Power District has taken an important first step toward a clean energy future.

 

For information regarding the US National Climate Assessment, part of the US Global Change Research Program, visit www.globalchange.gov/what-we-do/assessment.

Information on Omaha Public Power District’s green initiatives can be found at www.oppd.com/AimGreen/Environment/index.htm.

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