LES aims to sign solar, wind energy project deals by December

Source:  By ALGIS J. LAUKAIITS / Lincoln Journal Star • Posted: Monday, October 20, 2014

Slightly more than 400 residential and business customers have signed up for Lincoln Electric System’s SunShares program.

The Lincoln Electric System plans to have two renewable energy projects — a community solar energy project and a wind farm — wrapped up just before Christmas.

LES management is reviewing proposals submitted by developers and would like to have contracts signed for both projects by mid-December, Jason Fortik, vice president of power supply, told the LES administrative board Friday.

On Aug. 2, the utility launched a voluntary sign-up program called SunShares to garner support for a community solar energy farm, possibly up to 10 megawatts.

Residential customers were asked to pay an extra $3 a month or more through their electric bills.

As of Thursday, 1,049 customers signed up, raising $5,470, Fortik said.

LES management, with input from a board committee, will factor in customer support for the solar energy project to determine its size. A decision is expected by the end of the month, and LES plans to announce the developer on Dec. 19.

The utility is also reviewing 105 projects submitted by 15 developers for a wind farm that could be built in Nebraska or out of state. Fortik said LES did not specify a size for the wind farm but would prefer to have one in the range of 10 to 100 megawatts.

On Friday, the LES board authorized management to negotiate a contract with a developer once one is chosen. Fortik said the utility hopes to have a short list of developers soon, select a finalist by Nov. 14 and execute a contract by Dec. 19.

During a public comment period, Ken Winston with the Nebraska Sierra Club encouraged the board to pick a wind farm project in Nebraska.

“The bottom line is we would like to see a decision that does not have a negative connotation to this body,” he told the board.

State Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha and other state lawmakers criticized LES last year for agreeing to buy power from the Arbuckle Wind Farm being developed by EDP Renewables in south-central Oklahoma.

LES said it signed the contract with EDP because it wanted the best deal for its customers. The utility estimates that buying 100 megawatts of power from Arbuckle will save ratepayers $160 million over 20 years.

Board member W. Don Nelson said wind energy legislation passed by the Nebraska Legislature in recent years is forcing him to vote for the most cost-effective proposals and in the best interest of the ratepayers.

He said the Legislature hasn’t defined what a “local” project means.

“A project in Nebraska with a developer from Spain and financing from China is not a local project,” Nelson said.

Nevertheless, Winston said, many state senators want wind energy investments to stay in Nebraska. He said there could be a “political firestorm” if LES invests in an out-of-state wind project.

In other action, the LES Board approved a $345.8 million budget for 2015 and forwarded it to the Lincoln City Council for a public hearing on Nov. 13 and final vote on Nov. 17.

For the first time since 2009, there is no rate increase with the new budget, according to Chief Financial Officer Laura Kapustka.

The $345.8 million budget represents a 7.4 percent increase over the current budget of $321.9 million. It budget includes $275.2 million for operations and $70.6 million for capital improvement projects.