Nebraska’s largest public power utilities, including OPPD, made clear last week that they’re all committed to renewable energy, while keeping their service affordable and reliable.
Top executives from OPPD, Lincoln Electric System and the Nebraska Public Power District outlined their plans to expand their energy portfolios at the annual Nebraska Wind & Solar Conference in Lincoln. The event draws industry groups, utility leaders, elected officials and others who are interested in sustainable energy.
All three utilities have committed to becoming a net-zero producer of carbon over the next few decades. OPPD’s governing board was the first to formally do so in November 2019, with a resolution to reach that goal by 2050. OPPD expects solar energy to play a major role.
OPPD President and CEO Javier Fernandez said he sometimes encounters farmers, landowners and other residents who ask why the utility is pursuing solar as an electricity source.
The answer, he said, is a mix of necessity, practicality and environmental stewardship. Solar is renewable, and it will also help OPPD meet the growing demand for electricity and its regulatory obligation to be able to produce additional energy beyond what’s typically needed.
Fernandez said solar meshes well with those needs because demand for electricity is greatest during Nebraska’s hot, sunny summers.
“We have a summer peak capacity issue, and solar fits really well with the problem we’re trying to solve,” he said.
NPPD CEO Tom Kent said his utility is doing public outreach and laying the groundwork for its plan to become a net-zero carbon producer by 2050, while keeping electricity affordable and reliable for customers. He said NPPD has worked recently to expand its community solar offerings, with projects in Norfolk and York.
“To say we’re interested and supportive of solar, I would say is an understatement,” Kent said during a panel discussion with all three CEOs. “That’s something we’ll continue to work on to meet the needs and desires of the communities we serve.”
Lincoln Electric System CEO Kevin Wailes said his utility is also working through plans to shift away from carbon-producing energy sources over the next few decades. He said the utility will eventually retire its coal-fired plants in a carefully timed, cost-efficient manner.
All three CEOs spoke about the challenges they’re facing, including supply chain issues that have made it harder to buy the right equipment.
Fernandez said OPPD’s service area faces growth challenges as well, as more large businesses and residents arrive with ever-greater demands for electricity.
He said OPPD has enough resources to meet the demand today, and has partnered with a private developer to add solar energy to its portfolio. But without action to prepare for the future, “we are going to be in trouble.”
OPPD signed a contract for an 81-megawatt solar array in Saunders County, Platteview Solar, which will eventually have the capacity to power about 14,000 average homes. Work is also underway for the Standing Bear Lake Station in Douglas County and Turtle Creek Station in Sarpy County, which will provide 600 megawatts of electricity from natural gas, providing extra power as needed.
One big, potential game-changer is the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), a new law that provides financial incentives to public power agencies to directly own or operate clean energy projects.
Previously, such incentives were only available to private developers in the form of tax credits, and public utilities could only benefit indirectly by buying renewable power from companies that owned renewable energy facilities. The new law gives public utilities more freedom to embrace renewable energy.
Or, as Fernandez put it: “The IRA is H-U-G-E.”
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