As Nebraska nuclear plant closes, OPPD weighs its future in renewable energy

Source: By Cole Epley, Omaha World-Herald • Posted: Saturday, April 21, 2018

The winds of change are howling in the Nebraska energy industry.

The Omaha Public Power District’s closure of its Fort Calhoun nuclear plant todayclears the way for new renewable generation to fill the void left by the 478-megawatt plant, even though the utility plans to replace just a portion of its output.

OPPD will have virtually doubled the portion of energy it receives from renewable sources by the time the new year rolls around. Renewables refers to sources of energy that aren’t depleted when they’re used — wind, sun and water, for instance.

The largest wind project in state history — the 400-megawatt Grande Prairie wind farm — now is mostly online. When it’s fully up and running, OPPD will eventually increase its total renewable generation portfolio to more than 818 megawatts.

With the nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun set to churn out its last gasp of energy today, renewables’ share of total generation at OPPD will be about 31 percent once Grande Prairie comes fully online. That’s a rise from its current 15 percent.

And that share stands to grow: OPPD will replace about 42 percent of the nuclear plant’s 478-megawatt output with wind and other renewables. The remaining void left by the nuclear plant’s shutdown will go unfilled because the utility is already generating more electricity than ratepayers use.

OPPD isn’t yet taking energy produced at Grande Prairie, but it will soon — most likely by the beginning of the year, at the latest. Grande Prairie is on 45,000 acres east of O’Neill, which is about 185 miles northwest of Omaha.

Thomas Budler, president of Des Moines-based BHE Wind, told The World-Herald that 78 of 100 turbines at its Grande Prairie project in Holt County are “commissioned and up and operating.”

“We’re really in good shape to deliver the project at its fully commissioned operating date by Nov. 30,” Budler said. BHE Wind is a division of Berkshire Hathaway Energy.

The privately built project — which will sell 100 percent of its electricity output to OPPD — cost about $610 million.

Once Grande Prairie is fully online, its generation will be enough to increase Nebraska’s total statewide wind capacity by about 40 percent. With the recent approval of an additional 300 megawatts of wind in Saline County by Lincoln-based Aksamit Resource Management, wind developers are building even more momentum in the state.

OPPD in July issued a request for proposals up to 400 megawatts for wind or up to 100 megawatts for solar, though the request is not confined to projects only within Nebraska.

BHE Wind’s Budler said his organization is looking at additional projects in Nebraska but would neither confirm nor deny whether it responded to the recent OPPD request.

The Omaha utility has gotten responses to backfill the gap left by Calhoun from projects both inside and outside of Nebraska. Wind proposals ranged from 10 megawatts up to 400 megawatts; solar proposals ranged from 1 megawatt to 100 megawatts.

OPPD officials expect to reformulate the utility’s resource generation plan by the end of 2016.

The 300-megawatt project backed by Aksamit in Saline County will represent a statewide increase of about 23 percent additional wind capacity when it comes online in mid-2018.

Unlike the BHE project, Aksamit still has to find a buyer for power generated by the approximately 90 turbines planned for that installation. A sister project will have about 37 turbines and add 74 megawatts when complete, pushing the Milligan projects to 374 megawatts of capacity.

Company officials said negotiations for power sales from those projects are ongoing, but it did respond to the OPPD request in July.

Berkshire Hathaway Inc. owns the Omaha World-Herald