LES adds wind, solar farms in major push to renewable energy

Source: By ALGIS J. LAUKAITIS, Lincoln Journal Star • Posted: Monday, December 22, 2014

LES solar

RANDY HAMPTON / Lincoln Electric Star

Friday was more than a banner day for the Lincoln Electric System. It was equivalent to a seismic shift in the way Lincoln residents will get their power over the next 25 years.

Adding power from two wind farms and a solar energy project will increase the utility’s renewable generation portfolio to 48 percent by 2016.

LES will add 173 megawatts of power generated from a wind farm in north-central Kansas and one in northeast Nebraska in 2016 and add a 5-megawatt solar energy farm along Interstate 80 near 75th and West Holdrege streets near the Lincoln airport.

The solar farm’s footprint — equivalent to slightly more than 30 acres of land, or about 25 football fields — will be visible to motorists much like the two wind turbines on the east edge of Lincoln.

“It  will be one of the largest in Nebraska and one of the largest in the Midwest region,” said Mayor Chris Beutler, who joined LES officials in making the announcement Friday morning at the Walter A. Canney Service Center, 27th and Fairfield streets.

“Wow,” the mayor said. “This is a big, big historic change that is taking place.”

LES will not own the projects but has signed long-term power purchase contracts with developers.

In addition to being environmentally friendly, the projects are expected to save LES customers more than $420 million over the next 25 years, said Kevin Wailes, administrator and CEO of the city-owned utility. He said the three projects also will help delay rate increases.

“It’s a very good day in Lincoln,” said John Atkeison, director of energy policy at the Nebraska Wildlife Federation. “It saves the future. It saves money today and the climate tomorrow. We’re not done, yet, but it’s a very good step.”

The Nebraska Sierra Club called the announcement a game-changer for LES, Lincoln and the state.

“This investment in renewable energy shows Lincoln’s intention to join Omaha in taking a leadership role in charting a healthy energy future for Nebraska,” Sierra Club spokesman Ken Winston said in a statement. “We applaud the steps they have taken to create jobs and generate economic benefits in this state.”

The 73-megawatt Prairie Breeze II wind farm in Custer County and the 100-megawatt Buckeye wind farm in Kansas will be built by Invenergy, which has developed more than 8,700 megawatts of utility-scale renewable and natural gas-fueled power generation and energy storage facilities in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

LES has signed agreements with Invenergy to buy all of the electricity from both wind farms over 25 years at a fixed price, said Scott Benson, manager of resource and transmission planning for LES.

That will take the utility’s total wind portfolio to 304 megawatts. Other energy sources include coal, natural gas, methane and hydroelectricity.

Last year, LES had 30 megawatts of wind resources, Benson said.

Waiting in the wings is the 100-megawatt Arbuckle Mountain wind farm in Oklahoma, which is scheduled to go into service in January 2016.

LES took some heat for participating in that project because it was outside of Nebraska, and some state senators urged the utility to keep its next project in the state to promote the state’s developing wind energy.

The Nebraska Farmers Union applauded LES for diversifying its power generation portfolio but said it was disappointed in the utility’s decision to buy energy from a wind farm in Kansas.

“LES seems unaware of the fact they are a member of the Nebraska public power team, and that Nebraska is a 100 percent public power state,” Farmers Union President John Hansen said in a statement. “Buying 100 megawatts of wind power in Oklahoma and now an additional 100 megawatts of wind power from Kansas does nothing to help strengthen or grow the capacity of Nebraska’s public power system, or our state’s wind resources capacity.”

Wailes said LES sought the best deals in a competitive market.

The cost of the contracts with the two wind farms and the solar energy farm is unknown. LES spokeswoman Kelley Porter said since all three projects are being built by private developers that information is confidential.

The solar energy farm is being built in response to an LES survey that indicated many customers are willing to support solar energy. About 1,200 customers signed to voluntarily pay as little as $3 a month through LES’ SunShares Program for a community solar project up to 10 megawatts.

The program is raising more than $6,000 per month, Benson said. The solar farm will be built by HelioSage Energy and will go into commercial operation next year. LES signed a 20-year contract to buy the electricity from HelioSage, based in Charlottesville, Virginia.

LES will leverage savings achieved through its long-term wind contracts to help supplement customer participation in the on-going SunShares Program, Benson said. The project will provide the utility with valuable solar operating experience.

LES officials held Friday’s news conference in a new addition at its service center that has a solar panel array on the roof that can generate as many as 50 kilowatts of electricity any time the sun is shining.

Unlike the solar farm along the interstate, the small solar array is owned by LES and will be used as a demonstration project for those interested in installing solar energy projects.