OPPD’s balancing stations have always been valuable assets to the utility’s customers. But in an ever-evolving and rapidly changing energy landscape, they’ve become indispensable.
The current plants – Sarpy County Station, Cass County Station and Jones Street Station (along with North Omaha Station units 1, 2, and 3, which run on natural gas) – are being called on more and more to provide energy. And soon two new gas plants will join OPPD’s generating fleet.
The two new plants are Turtle Creek Station and Standing Bear Lake Station. Both are natural gas plants that are under construction as part of OPPD’s Power with Purpose (PwP) project.
Traditionally, OPPD’s balancing stations have been “on call” to provide extra power as needed, usually when peak load is highest. These stations, formerly known as “peaking plants,” are valuable in that they can ramp up power and produce energy quickly, in some cases in just 15 minutes.
OPPD is a member of the Southwest Power Pool (SPP), a regional transmission organization that ensures electricity is delivered reliably and affordably. OPPD offers its units into SPP’s day-ahead Integrated Marketplace where SPP members can buy and sell power in that marketplace. Plants are selected to produce energy through bids and based on the projected need for power. The projected need is based in part on weather forecasts. Before joining SPP in 2014, OPPD decided when the balancing plants would run, which was typically in the summer or when one of the main generating – baseload – plants was offline.
Now, SPP can dispatch the plants as needed. OPPD can also run them when necessary to supplement baseload generation for its customers.
But even if SPP doesn’t call on OPPD’s plants to run in the day-ahead market, that doesn’t mean the plants will stay off.
“I’ve been surprised by how much these units are called on to run,” said Jeremy Kellner, a Peaking/Balancing Station supervisor at Sarpy County Station. He is one of three new supervisors in the Production Operations department within Energy Production at OPPD.
“Coming from so long at the baseload units, I didn’t pay much attention to that. Like yesterday, we weren’t awarded to operate and I thought it would be a good time to catch up on some backlog work orders. But within an hour we have three units running here at Sarpy (due to SPP dispatching the units).”
Ryan Gerdts, director of Operations at OPPD, said scenarios like that are pretty common. OPPD’s units can be called on when the forecasted wind generation doesn’t produce as expected. Or they can be dispatched when there is congestion on the transmission system or some other reliability challenges around the region. Under those circumstances, OPPD’s “peakers,” as they are known around the utility, can be dispatched based on their location and how quickly they can ramp up and produce power.
When that happens, Gerdts said, SPP starts OPPD’s units under a real-time Reliability Unit Commitment, and OPPD is compensated for that usage.
Gerdts said the growth of the Peaking Department is a direct reflection of changes in the energy landscape. OPPD has been preparing for that growth.
Kellner, Jake Glair and Nate Seid are the three new supervisors in the Peaking Station department. They and eight other employees recently joined the department. They all came from OPPD plants at North Omaha, Nebraska City and Fort Calhoun stations. Among them are operators, steam fitter mechanics, and instrumentation and control technicians.
And more employees will join their team. The utility plans to add 11 in the next wave of hiring, Gerdts said.
“OPPD needed to expand its staffing levels not only because of the new generating facilities at Turtle Creek and Standing Bear, but also due to the expanded use of the current facilities,” Gerdts said. “We need more experience and depth to help with the work-life balance and to make sure these plants have sufficient staff to operate and maintain these units.”
OPPD created a new apprenticeship program for Peaking Station Technicians to bolster the ranks over the past two years. The program is providing OPPD with technicians who can both operate and work on the units.
Balancing stations aren’t unique to OPPD. As older baseload plants are taken out of service around the country, these plants help supplement demand in real time. Utilities also use them when baseload plants are undergoing planned maintenance outages. Those outages typically happen on a set schedule in the spring and fall, when demand is lower.
As the Omaha metro area grows, more power is required. OPPD’s PwP project will add 400 to 600 megawatts (MW) of utility-scale solar and up to 600 MW of natural gas balancing generation.
Like Kellner, Seid feels he is getting in on the ground floor of the expanding department. Seid spent most of his career at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station.
“This is going to be a vital part of our generation portfolio,” said Seid, who will lead the Turtle Creek Station and Cass County Stations.
A lot of Seid’s time has been spent on reviewing and preparing weekly reports. As he compares generation on a yearly basis, he can see how the peakers have been ramping up more frequently.
In fact, July saw a new record for power produced at the balancing stations. That’s when monthly generation eclipsed all-time megawatt-hour totals. Including operational runs at North Omaha’s 1, 2 and 3 units, the balancing stations generated nearly 25% more energy than any previous July on record.
As OPPD customer’s energy needs and usage change, the value of the utility’s balancing stations only grows. The nimble stations provide flexibility and increased reliability to OPPD’s service territory and beyond.
Cass County (natural gas) – 324 megawatts (MW)
Sarpy County (oil and natural gas) – 320 MW
Jones Street Station (oil) – 123 MW
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