Article

Vote on power-line plan defended

Twice previously, the current chairman of the Nebraska Power Review Board recused himself from voting because of a potential conflict of interest: His employer was working for a utility seeking board approval of a project. But this month, Chairman Michael Siedschlag, a vice president with HDR Engineering, voted in favor of a controversial high-voltage transmission line proposed by the Nebraska Public Power District. The project was approved on a 3-2 vote.

LINCOLN - Twice previously, the current chairman of the Nebraska Power Review Board recused himself from voting because of a potential conflict of interest: His employer was working for a utility seeking board approval of a project.

But this month, Chairman Michael Siedschlag, a vice president with HDR Engineering, voted in favor of a controversial high-voltage transmission line proposed by the Nebraska Public Power District. The project was approved on a 3-2 vote.

Siedschlag said there was a clear difference: HDR was not working for NPPD on the proposed $87 million line from Axtell, Neb., to the Kansas state line.

In 2008, he refrained from voting on two matters in which HDR was working as a contractor. One was an NPPD proposal to build a substation near a wind turbine farm near Bloomfield.

Some opponents of the Axtell line expressed concern about a regulator of the power industry working for a company that does business with it.

However, Siedschlag said he's complying with state laws concerning potential conflicts. He said he feels no pressure to vote for projects that affect entities that do business with the Omaha-based engineering firm.

"I think most of the people in the power industry... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

LINCOLN - Twice previously, the current chairman of the Nebraska Power Review Board recused himself from voting because of a potential conflict of interest: His employer was working for a utility seeking board approval of a project.

But this month, Chairman Michael Siedschlag, a vice president with HDR Engineering, voted in favor of a controversial high-voltage transmission line proposed by the Nebraska Public Power District. The project was approved on a 3-2 vote.

Siedschlag said there was a clear difference: HDR was not working for NPPD on the proposed $87 million line from Axtell, Neb., to the Kansas state line.

In 2008, he refrained from voting on two matters in which HDR was working as a contractor. One was an NPPD proposal to build a substation near a wind turbine farm near Bloomfield.

Some opponents of the Axtell line expressed concern about a regulator of the power industry working for a company that does business with it.

However, Siedschlag said he's complying with state laws concerning potential conflicts. He said he feels no pressure to vote for projects that affect entities that do business with the Omaha-based engineering firm.

"I think most of the people in the power industry know who I am and what I stand for," Siedschlag said, adding that it "hurts" that his integrity is being questioned.

He said that his knowledge of the renewable energy industry is a benefit to the board, and that he checks every agenda to make sure that HDR is not working on any proposals before the board.

The concern comes as the low-profile state regulatory board is about to take on a much larger role. The Nebraska Legislature this year designated the five-member Power Review Board to oversee the approval of large privately owned wind farms designed to export power to other states.

Encouraging development of the state's underused wind resources has been a longtime goal of state leaders, and the passage of Legislative Bill 1048 was viewed as a big step toward that.

The Power Review Board's past hearings have drawn only a handful of utility representatives whose primary job was ensuring that utility projects would not raise rates unreasonably. Now the board finds itself stepping out - it will rule on new wind farms and the miles of new transmission lines needed to export that wind power.

The board, created in 1963, has five members appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature. Siedschlag, whose job with HDR involves finding business opportunities, was appointed in 2006 as an engineer representative.

Eric Boudreau, an Upland, Neb., farmer who opposed the Axtell line, said there might be additional pressure on a board member whose employer has done business with a utility to maintain a good relationship, though he said bigger issues were involved in the vote on the Axtell project.

Boudreau said the Power Review Board missed an opportunity to set a higher standard for approval of a transmission line. He said he felt that NPPD failed to prove that the Axtell line was the best alternative for shipping power to Kansas.

A Twitter account, Anti Axtell Power Line, also raised concerns about Siedschlag's potential conflicts.

In 2008, Siedschlag abstained from voting on two issues before the board.

In 2009, he filed a formal conflict of interest statement concerning an coming board vote on a project by the Omaha Public Power District in which HDR was hired as a consulting engineer.

He said he did so at the urging of the Nebraska Political Accountability and Disclosure Commission, which regulates such conflicts.

At that time, Frank Daley of the disclosure commission advised Siedschlag that he had a conflict on the OPPD vote because, as a vice president, he met the standard of a conflict: having an association with HDR that might result in a financial benefit. Daley said such an association must be greater than being a mere employee.

When contacted this week, Daley said a conflict does not exist when the financial benefit is "speculative" and not "reasonably foreseeable."

Tim Texel, executive director of the Power Review Board, said he has interpreted that to mean that if a board member's employer is not involved in a project presently in front of the board, the member can vote on it.

That, Texel said, was the case for Siedschlag on the Axtell project.

Texel added that at least two other members of the Power Review Board have declared conflicts of interest in the past due to their firms doing business with utilities seeking approval of projects.

"It's not real common,'' he said, but it happens.

Texel added that it helps the board to have engineers like Siedschlag who understand the complexities of the power industry.

Beth Boesch, a spokeswoman for NPPD, said that since HDR had no role in the Axtell project, it wasn't a conflict for Siedschlag to vote on it.

HDR, she said, has done business with NPPD in the past, and is currently a contractor on a new NPPD operations center in Norfolk.

Siedschlag said he sought appointment to the Power Review Board because he cares about his home state and wanted to help ensure that electric rates stay low in Nebraska to encourage economic development.

He said he voted to approve the Axtell transmission line because it will help NPPD keep rates low by allowing it to sell more excess power to other states.

Siedschlag said NPPD could have stated its case more clearly to the public, but the materials he saw clearly proved it would benefit Nebraska by providing a better connection to the eight other states in the Southwest Power Pool.

"This is an integration issue with the bigger power pool, in line with the way the industry is moving forward," he said. "It can be painful, but it's a positive step."


Source: http://www.omaha.com/articl...

MAY 26 2010
http://www.windaction.org/posts/26490-vote-on-power-line-plan-defended
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