The Omaha Public Power District board is stepping in to stop the fight over OPPD’s next major environmental policy – and trying to send both sides home as winners.
The utility’s updated proposal weaves together the competing approaches of customers who want OPPD to set specific goals for how much renewable energy it uses and those who would rather the district reduce its carbon footprint, however possible.
The board’s latest draft of Strategic Directive 7 does both, setting a “long-term goal” of OPPD providing at least 50 percent of its retail electricity from renewable sources while also aiming to reduce the utility’s overall “carbon intensity” by 20 percent from 2010 to 2030.
“There’s nothing wrong with adding that 50 percent,” said Russ Baker, director of OPPD’s environmental and regulatory affairs. “It’s not going to change our direction, and it will really work hand-in-glove with the reduction in carbon intensity.”
OPPD officials had said last month that a change to measuring carbon intensity would give the utility more options to reduce carbon emissions. That would be a shift from the district’s current goal of ensuring that at least 30 percent of the electricity it sells to retail customers comes from renewable sources. Carbon intensity refers to the carbon emitted per unit of electricity generated.
The district’s stance changed after a majority of the more than 100 electricity customers who weighed in before the OPPD board’s Oct. 9 committee meeting told their public utility representatives that they wanted to keep specific targets for renewable energy.
Some expressed fears that the board might be trying to move the goal posts by shifting how it calculates environmental progress to measuring carbon intensity, despite OPPD officials’ explanations of potential environmental benefits of the change.
Several local environmentalists, including Mary Ruth Stegman, said they would like to see the district push toward getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources, joining a list of about 80 cities and counties nationally that have done so.
Others, including Barry Butterfield, worried about the district relying too much on renewable sources like solar and wind power before battery storage technology has matured enough to keep the system from risking its reliability or higher electricity rates.
Board Chairman Mike Cavanaugh said he urged his colleagues to avoid using specific numerical targets in strategic directives. Such policies should include general goals and philosophies for management to shoot for and offer direction and guidance, he said.
“These strategic directives should stand the test of time,” Cavanaugh said. “I’m going along with them, being a team player, but … things change so rapidly. I’m not real excited about it.”
Board member Anne McGuire said the 50 percent goal might not be necessary because reducing carbon intensity by 1 percent a year for 20 years would require the use of more renewable energy anyway. But the change helps avoid public confusion, she said.
“There’s almost no way to meet this goal without being more aggressive on renewables,” McGuire said.
OPPD already expects its percentage of retail electricity from renewable sources to approach 40 percent in late 2019, when a wind energy project in northeast Nebraska comes online. The utility’s percentage of retail sales from renewable sources was 5.1 percent as recently as 2010.
OPPD has asked the public to weigh in on the new draft directive by Nov. 4, using a form on its website, oppd.com. Officials plan to sift through the next round of public comments in time to share them with board. If the compromise appears acceptable, the OPPD board could adopt it during its Nov. 15 board meeting. If not, it could be sent back to the drawing board.