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Nebraska board drops proposal seeking greater authority over renewable energy projects

LINCOLN – A state energy board on Friday backed off of its controversial proposal to seek veto power over agreements between utilities and private wind and solar projects.

The proposal would likely drive renewable energy projects to locate outside Nebraska, advocates told the Nebraska Power Review Board.

“They’ll go elsewhere,” said Stephen Bruckner, an attorney for the Omaha Public Power District.

The Review Board had created a firestorm of opposition from the state’s public power utilities and environmentalists after proposing that it be granted the authority to approve or deny “power purchase agreements” between utilities and private projects – mostly wind and solar farms – that provide electricity. The board also wanted to be able to provide recommendations any time a utility sought to retire a power plant, such as when OPPD decided to close its Fort Calhoun nuclear plant in 2016.

Right now, the five-member board, which is appointed by the governor, has the authority to approve or deny construction of new power plants and related projects by the state’s public power utilities, but it doesn’t have a say over deals reached with privately developed wind and solar projects that sell energy.

During public discussion of the proposal on Friday, the executive director and members of the board denied that the idea was intended to slow or block renewable energy development or that it was inspired by state senators who oppose wind farms.

One board member, Dennis Grennan of Columbus, said the proposal grew out of his concern over a repeat of the polar vortex that struck in February and led to rolling blackouts in Nebraska because of power generation disruption in Texas and Oklahoma.

The power industry has changed, Grennan and others said, and utilities have shifted to obtaining new energy via power purchase agreements, instead of building new power plants, to capture federal tax credits granted to private wind farms. OPPD and other public utilities don’t qualify for the credits.

“What happened in Texas was catastrophic,” Grennan said.

Grennan said it made him question whether the Power Review Board needs a role in deciding if the state’s utilities were providing adequate, reliable and resilient power.

But representatives of OPPD, the Nebraska Public Power District and the Nebraska Power Association, which represents all electric utilities in the state, said that utilities already consider how to avoid blackouts and that consideration of such a proposal was premature. Some said existing law did not need to be changed.

After a four-hour discussion, board members opted to drop the proposal, which would have ultimately required action by the Legislature. Instead, the board decided to work with the power industry to discuss whether the board’s responsibilities need to change.