Half of OPPD’s energy will come from renewable sources by 2020, CEO says

Source: By Cole Epley, Omaha World Herald • Posted: Wednesday, November 15, 2017

LINCOLN — Omaha Public Power District President and Chief Executive Tim Burke said half the energy the utility sells to retail customers will come from renewable sources by the end of 2020.

Burke said in remarks over lunch at the 10th annual Nebraska Wind and Solar Conference on Monday that the utility is working on a request for proposals for up to 300 megawatts more of wind energy.

Once that project is online, more than 50 percent of OPPD’s retail sales will come from renewable energy sources.

For comparison, less than 20 percent of OPPD’s retail sales in 2016 came from such sources, which include wind turbines, natural gas extracted from the Douglas County landfill and hydropower from dams in the western U.S.

That means OPPD is quickly catching up to the state’s two other large electric utilities when it comes to beefing up its portfolio with energy resources that don’t emit greenhouse gases.

At Lincoln Electric System, 48 percent of the utility’s retail load comes from renewables.

Even though Nebraska Public Power District has been far slower to adopt renewable energy at such a scale, the Columbus-based utility gets about 60 percent of its electricity from resources that don’t emit greenhouse gases, thanks mostly to the 800-megawatt Cooper nuclear plant it operates in southeast Nebraska.

NPPD President and Chief Executive Pat Pope suggested that he’s more comfortable with having a carbon-free source of electricity in the nuclear plant versus adding more wind to the grid, despite nuclear’s significantly higher costs to own and operate. He reasoned that because nuclear plants are a major source of constant electricity, they are more beneficial to grid reliability than wind turbines that aren’t always generating electricity.

“I do worry that (adding more wind) could have a negative impact on the reliability of the system. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a renewables fan or not,” Pope said. “I think we’re all fans of reliable electricity, and we’ve got to watch that very, very closely.”

OPPD closed its nuclear plant at Fort Calhoun in October 2016, citing expenses that it said did not justify the continued costs required to keep the plant open.

Increasingly less-expensive renewable sources and depressed natural gas prices have pushed wholesale energy prices so low that electricity generated at Calhoun became too expensive to compete in the market.

So if it seems the Omaha electric utility has been on a streak lately when it comes to wind, that’s no accident.

A new 160-megawatt wind farm to be built in Wayne County will send renewables’ portion of retail sales at OPPD to about 40 percent once it comes online in late 2019. That project was announced in July 2017.

OPPD beefed up its wind portfolio significantly when the 400-megawatt Grande Prairie project began generating electricity in late 2016. That project, which is owned by Des Moines-based BHE Renewables and from which OPPD buys 100 percent of electricity output, is the largest U.S. wind farm built in 2016.

In terms of timing, Burke said the next big wind project after these would follow in the “2019-2020 range.”

That will no doubt be welcome news to environmentally minded ratepayers at OPPD, which has historically leaned on coal for more than half the electricity it generates. Adding more wind and solar into the mix helps mitigate emissions of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels like coal.

Such emissions have been the largest driver of climate change for about 60 years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

More renewables have also provided a boost to the rural American economy, said Tom Kiernan, chief executive of the American Wind Energy Association.

“There’s been about $115 billion invested in this industry … and 95 percent of that is in rural America,” said Kiernan, whose group represents the industry and lobbies on its behalf. “It’s in communities that need that economic support.”