Exploring Nebraska's renewable energy potential key topic at open houses

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May 8, 2012 - 7:00pm

Only one state in the country has only public power within its borders. That state is Nebraska. Usually that refers to non-profit utilities and citizens playing a stakeholder's' role. But as the Nebraska Public Power District looks to future energy generation, it's putting a new meaning to the term "public" by holding open houses around the state for input.

Perry Stoner, NET News

Public power utilities have a diverse mix of energy sources. For NPPD, nearly 60 percent comes from coal-burning plants. About 28 percent comes from nuclear energy. At the recent open house in Lincoln, Mike Boyce, strategic project manager at NPPD's Cooper Nuclear Station explained how just a handful of uranium meets the annual energy needs for one home.

"It's about half an inch long and a little less than a half an inch in diameter," he said. "It looks like a little cylinder, and each one of these pellets is equivalent of about a ton of coal - 2,000 pounds of coal in energy - (and) ... 5,000 pounds of wood. So there's a lot of energy in a nuclear fuel pellet."

Boyce anticipates uranium being a fuel NPPD will continue to use, and said it will likely increase what Cooper Nuclear Station is producing.

"Cooper Nuclear Station is already licensed to run until 2034, so we've got a fairly good lifespan ahead of us even now," he said. "And the district, as part of its general operations analysis, is looking at the possibility of adding an additional 20 percent additional power output from Cooper Nuclear Station."

By the end of the year, NPPD officials say wind energy will provide about 6 percent of power generated. Renewable energy is another example of the diverse energy mix. Dave Rich, the district's sustainable energy manager, said wind potential in Nebraska is significant.

"Nebraska has tremendous wind resources. The National Renewable Energy Lab ranks us as 3rd as energy production potential," he said. "What that really means is if all the generation was built, wind generation in the state, if there was enough transmission, you could supply 90 percent of the US's annual energy needs just from wind farms in Nebraska.

"Now there would be days there wouldn't be any power, when the wind stops blowing across the entire state the lights would go out, but if you looked at the total gigawatt hours used across the United States in a year compared with what potentially could be produced here, you could supply 90 percent of those needs."

Providing information like this is the first purpose of NPPD's open houses, called Behind the Outlet. It's part of that general operations analysis mentioned earlier, or GOA, which will help put a resource roadmap in place for the next 20 years.

NPPD President and CEO Pat Pope said the other purpose for the open houses is to receive input from the public on its desires.

Perry Stoner, NET News

Mike Boyce, strategic project manager at Cooper Nuclear Station, discusses nuclear energy at the NPPD open house in Lincoln.

"The comments really run the entire spectrum," he said. "We have folks who are passionate about renewables, that think the district should do much, much more in the area of renewables. On the other hand, we've had folks come in that have said, 'The only thing I care about is the lowest-cost energy you can provide me,' to absolutely focus on that.

"I would say I haven't really sensed a dominate theme," he continued. "It's been kind of distributed across the spectrum. It's been interesting to see folks come in with a pre-determined opinion or something they feel strongly about, and after they've talked with folks at the stations ... I've seen some folks come out with some different opinions. You know, we want to educate, we want to inform and then we want to hear their thoughts."

At the Lincoln open house, those passionate about renewable energy were well-represented. Lincoln resident Linell Connelly said she's concerned about health impacts from energy choices.

"I am interested in renewable energy and moving away from fossil fuels, seeing what we can do for the future," she said. "I don't think fossil fuels probably are the best for a sustainable future, for our energy future. One of my questions was how would long-term sustainability compare with renewable options and maintenance options and health options. I work in health care, so I'm kind of concerned about what we have to look forward to in the next 50 years compared to what we've seen."

"I think low cost is a concern," she added, "but I also think, overall, what we have to do for sustainability is probably a bigger concern."

Matt Cronin came from his home in Omaha. He's interested in renewable sources as a way to be self-reliant: for example, solar and wind projects on public buildings.

"I think solar could be a lot more competitive because it could be a way to make public power system 'public' again," he said. "If we integrate in on our public institutions, you know, put them on the schools and the libraries maybe, in the long run (we'd) create new revenue streams for our public institutions, which always getting pinched," he said. "Incorporating point-source production, I think that's the key of it. Because then we can actually retain the wealth in the state and not have to ship it to Wyoming for their coal river basin."

Outside, as the late afternoon traffic drove through downtown Lincoln, others interested in renewable energy used the event to hold a news conference. The theme there, too, was keeping energy dollars in the state.

Perry Stoner, NET News

Renewable energy supporters outside the NPPD open house.

John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmer's Union wants more wind energy to help Nebraska's rural economy by creating jobs and through land-use payments to landowners.

"While we look at this potential, somehow, some way, we know that our public power system has the expertise and the resources to compete with and exceed the operation of our system equal to or better any of the private sector utilities in our neighborhood," he said. "So if they can find a way to have three, four, five, six times as much of their portfolio coming from wind as we do, we know that where we're at right now puts us in a position in order to be in competition with our neighbors."

"We ought to be asking our public utilities, quite frankly, to find a way to incorporate about 25 percent of our electrical generation from wind," Hansen continued. "It's not all or none, but that's a reasonable request, and we know that we have the potential to do that. And so as we look at the economic development opportunities, that's all money that we didn't send to Wyoming, that we sent to rural Nebraska that created jobs, that created local, state tax revenues, and it didn't use water and it didn't emit carbon."

Hansen acknowledged Nebraska has made a lot of progress in developing wind energy in the last decade. He also cited recent American Wind Association statistics that show land-lease payments in Nebraska are slightly more than $1 million annually; but in neighboring Iowa, they're $13 million, even though Nebraska wind is rated better than that in Iowa.

Nebraska Sierra Club spokesperson Ken Winston also wants to take advantage of the state's natural resource.

Perry Stoner, NET News

Some renewable energy supporters want NPPD to make renewable energy a bigger part of it's generation mix.

"We have world-class wind resources in Nebraska," he said, "and the fact that our development of our world-class resources are last in the region, and in fact last in the United States - of states that have done any renewable energy development - that's something that needs to be considered in this process.

"So we're asking NPPD (to) please consider the resources that we have in the state of Nebraska," Winston added. "This is a decision that has long-term implications."

NPPD officials said they are considering how to capitalize on Nebraska's resources, but it's not an easy task. NPPD is charged by state law to keep utility costs low, and right now, the capital investment to put transmission in place for wind energy is cost-prohibitive. Even if Nebraska wind could provide 90 percent of the nation's energy, Dave Rich with NPPD said, the transmission investment to get to that point would be billions, if not tens of billions, of dollars. But he pointed out good qualities of wind energy, too. For one thing, the fuel is free.

"One good thing with wind is you can build it in relatively short timeframe, you can enter into a contract and there's still utilities trying to get projects built yet this year," he said. "If the transmission exists, you can have a wind farm up in nine months ... other coal plants, nuclear plants, there's no way you can do that. So I think we'll continue on the path we are, if things change from a regulation standpoint we'll have the ability to add wind."

NPPD has a self-set goal of adding 10 percent new, renewable energy by 2020.

"With the contracts that we have in place, and if they all come on this year, we'll have about 6 percent of our goal, or over halfway there," he said. "So we are well on our way of meeting our goal."

Scott Loseke's job with NPPD is to try and figure out how much energy will need to be generated in the future (energy demand is called 'load'). It's not an easy task.

"Our base load forecast, we expect about one percent growth," he said. "We provide a range of forecasts, and the low-end of that is about zero and the high is two percent."

Perry Stoner, NET News

Scott Loseke, energy market team leader discusses energy demand at the NPPD open house in Lincoln.

"We acknowledge that the need forecast isn't right, but we hope to be close when we get 20 years out," he added. "One of the things that causes uncertainty for electric load growth or electric demand is what kind of adoption will we have with energy efficiency, what kind of adoption will we have with electric vehicles. We try to track all these things as best we can, but it does cause a lot of uncertainty in the future for electricity demand."

(See how one Lincoln man made his car an electric car.)

As the conversation with the public continues, NPPD President Pope said one thing is sure about energy: the future is unclear.

"We've got ongoing environmental regulations that bring uncertainty about what we'll be able to do in the future," he said. "So we're really trying to sit back and figure out what a plausible scenario is.

"It's one of the reasons one of the strategies we've adopted is be diversified in our portfolio," Pope continued. "We don't believe that anybody can predict with a great amount of certainty what the price or what the technology is going to be in the future, so we think that for our customers, that diversity, taking advantage of all the fuel sources - including renewables - is a wise strategy."

There are two more NPPD "Behind the Outlet" public open houses scheduled: May 14 in South Sioux City and in Columbus on May 15. NPPD will continue to take public comment at goainput@nppd.com. Pope said after the public comment period, the public input will be analyzed and offered to NPPD's Board of Directors. The utility's new plan could be in place later this year or early 2013.



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