Public power: An industry in flux

The power industry is in the midst of tectonic-level shifts, the heads of Nebraska's three largest electric utilities said Monday.

“We’re seeing a lot of change. This industry is in what I believe is a unique period of evolution,” Nebraska Public Power District President and CEO Pat Pope said at the ninth annual Nebraska Wind and Solar Conference in Lincoln.

Nebraska is the only state to get its power entirely from public utilities.

The two-day conference is highlighting efforts to harvest sun and wind resources.

Cheap natural gas, more efficient homes, electricity surpluses, stagnant demand, changing government regulations, competitive regional wholesale electricity markets and a bevy of other factors are leading utilities to make major changes.

One of the most visible is the closing of Omaha Public Power District’s Fort Calhoun Station, which was taken offline Oct. 24, the fifth nuclear power plant to begin the process of closing in the past five years. OPPD executives recommended closing the plant in May, saying it no longer makes financial sense to keep it open. They cited pressure from historically low natural gas prices, low revenue growth and rising regulatory costs.

Fort Calhoun, with 478.1 megawatts accredited capability, was North America’s smallest nuclear plant and lacked the benefit of scale that larger plants like NPPD’s 804-megawatt Cooper Nuclear Station have.

OPPD is reevaluating its power portfolio and plans to beef up its wind generation, as well as add a small amount of natural gas to make it more competitive, CEO Tim Burke said.

“My guess is we will be moving to 1,200-plus megawatts of wind in the future," he said. OPPD had 416.5 megawatts of wind and landfill gas capacity at the end of last year.

Lincoln Electric System, thanks to community conservation efforts, will not need to increase generation until after 2045 based on current growth projections, unless equipment breaks down or regulatory changes require it to do so, CEO Kevin Wailes said.

He went on to say public utilities provide power on average cheaper and with less interruption than their private counterparts, and he cautioned the energy conference audience to beware of misleading statements being made by a group lobbying state legislators to allow a choice between public and private electric providers in Nebraska.

With the addition of the Lincoln utility’s new solar farm, the first utility-scale solar project in the state, LES’ electricity generation infrastructure is split equally between coal, natural gas and renewable sources. LES tends to draw heavily from renewable sources, accounting for about 48 percent of the electricity it produces.

Nebraska has long benefited from its proximity to Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, a source of cheap and plentiful coal.

The state's in a similar situation today with respect to wind. The American Wind Energy Association ranks Nebraska fourth in potential for the gusty resource, which has been slow to develop here compared to states like Iowa, which has more than 10,000 megawatts of wind energy generation installed.

Nebraska wind resources went from 459 megawatts of developed energy production three years ago to 1,324 megawatts today, although the expansion has come with controversy.

Last year, Lancaster County supervisors passed noise and distance restrictions that wind proponents say make it impossible to develop new turbines in the county.

Protests and heated discussions have taken place over placement of wind farms in other counties, as well.

State senators sought to give Nebraska wind a boost earlier this year by passing legislation to ease state restrictions.


NOV 8 2016
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