NPPD 2016 Board Elections Affect Many Nebraskans

Map of NPPD Board districts. (Courtesy NPPD)
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September 16, 2016 - 6:45am

When you take a look at your ballot in November, it’s likely there will be some names and races you’re not familiar with. But one of those lesser-known races has the power to affect many Nebraskans.

Nebraska is the only state that relies entirely on public power, meaning we get our electricity from locally-owned, nonprofit utilities as opposed to investor-owned private companies. The state’s largest utility, the Nebraska Public Power District, is run by an eleven-member board of directors. This fall, candidates for four of those seats will be up for election.

“The board really sets the direction on whether they're going to keep upgrading and maintaining existing plants or if they're going to go with new technology like wind and solar and other renewable sources,” said Janece Mollhoff, natural resources director with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters of Nebraska.

Deciding what kind of power generation to rely on is just one of the responsibilities of the NPPD Board. Between retail sales directly to customers and selling wholesale power to towns and other public power districts, NPPD provides electricity for roughly one-third of the state’s population. So the decisions board members make matter to Nebraskans.

The board decides many things: how much to charge for electricity, how it’s generated and how it gets to you—that includes decisions on transmission lines like the controversial R Project which would be built through the Sandhills.

NPPD Subdivision Three Candidates:

Melissa Freelend

Ron Larsen

(Courtesy photos)

“The board influences how much money is available for energy conservation and efficiency projects like LED bulb replacements, low income housing weatherization programs, and those types of things that really affect people who are concerned about higher energy costs,” Mollhoff said.

Elections to the board are staggered, so not all are up in any one year. Terms last six years and there are no term limits. The longest serving current member, Gary Thompson of subdivision eight, has been on the NPPD board for nearly a quarter-century. He faces challenger Jay Schulz this fall.

Mollhoff said the candidates in this year’s election offer a choice between experience and change in direction, “Whether it's between someone who's been on the board for decades as opposed to someone who might have some new and fresh ideas, each of the board races has some unique aspects to it.”

Newcomer Melissa Freelend is running against two-term incumbent Ron Larsen in subdivision three in central Nebraska. Freelend, a Grand Island native who has spent the last decade in Kearney, said she decided to run out of concern that NPPD is out of touch with people across the state.

“On the NPPD board, there needs to be at least one member whose primary goal is to look out for and listen to regular Nebraskans,” Freelend said.

This is her first run for public office. Currently Mary Harding is the only woman on the NPPD board. Freelend, a local radio host, said she wants to increase the amount of power the utility gets from renewable sources like wind, solar and hydro.

“Currently [NPPD is] at around 10 percent of our energy resources coming from clean energy but I think we could definitively raise that up to 20 percent, which is what I'd love to see, for a healthy future for the kids of Nebraska and for lower rates in the long run and to help create good paying jobs,” Freelend said.

Incumbent candidate Ron Larsen has a long history of public service in Kearney, where he’s served as mayor and on city council. He’s aware NPPD has faced criticism from environmentalists and others in the power industry about its continued dependence on coal as opposed to renewable energy sources, but said with the potential threat of a future carbon tax, “right now we’re talking more about our carbon footprint.”

Larsen said currently the utility has enough power to supply its needs without adding additional renewable sources. While NPPD has been increasing the costs of its wholesale power in recent years, relying mainly on coal and nuclear helps NPPD keep rates low—an often-cited benefit of public power. Larsen said the board remains focused on controlling costs.

“We have to make sure we make good decisions that's going to benefit our ratepayers,” Larsen said. Because the power industry across the nation is changing rapidly, Larsen said his tenure on the board makes him qualified for another term.

“The reason I'm running is I think I can still contribute with my experience and background to continue hopefully to make good decision for the citizens of Nebraska,” Larsen said.

Freelend said another of her priorities, if elected, is increasing NPPD’s communication with the public.

“I believe there needs to be that better sense of transparency and more two-way communication,” Freelend said. Larsen disagreed, saying, “we couldn't be more transparent.”

He noted all board meetings are open to the public. Two years ago, the League of Women Voters asked the NPPD board to start live-streaming their meetings for constituents who couldn’t travel to the meetings in Columbus. The board voted against it. The League has asked NPPD to reconsider and the board will likely vote again on the issue in October.

So while public power board elections may not attract the attention other races get, these local decisions are really important “for people who care about their electricity bills but also people who care about where their energy is coming from,” Mollhoff said.

In northeast Nebraska, two-term incumbent Virg Froehlich faces Bill Johnson in subdivision 10. In the state’s southwest corner, two-term incumbent Larry Linstrom will go up against Bill Hoyt in subdivision four.



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