“It’s worth it to have a hobby I enjoy. I’m a Republican but I still believe in the environment,” said homeowner Ken Engle from his home in Midtown Omaha.
Everything runs off solar in Engle’s house. He said he pumps power out but also gets it back. For Engle, having solar has already paid dividends. He has been selling power back to OPPD and rarely gets a bill.
As solar and wind are increasingly affordable, the Omaha Public Power District has been making a major shift away from the dirty energy sources increasing the cost of electrical bills and threatening Nebraska and the world’s climate. Environmental groups have played an important role and are turning up their urgency. Individual homeowners are making some big differences.
The Sierra Club is running a Beyond Coal Campaign with a goal of shutting down a certain number of coal plants by 2020 and 2030. Associate Organizing Representative Graham Jordison, on sabbatical with the Dave Domina campaign, said Beyond Coal started because the Sierra Club realized that if they really wanted to address climate change on a serious level they would have to go after the largest and biggest polluters in the country. Most of those polluters were coal fired power plants.
“That’s where we realized 40 percent of the carbon dioxide in our air was coming from. To do our part in the country, we realized we were going to have to shut down a certain number of coal plants and replace that with clean energy like wind and solar,” Jordison explained.
He said many of the pollutants created by coal generation contribute to global climate change, including sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide and particulate matter. And Jordison said there is scientific evidence that individuals living near these types of plants are more likely to develop conditions like asthma because of the particulate matter that is dispersed into the air through coal generation.
“We can move in a fast direction toward coming up with a retirement date for the North Omaha coal plant. We don’t expect to shut the plant down overnight but we do think OPPD could commit now to projecting a shutdown in 2015/2016,” Jordison said.
He cites Fort Calhoun as evidence this is possible. When that station was offline, OPPD didn’t need to supplement the power lost. Jordison said the power was fine for 2 ½ years, with no blackouts.
There are four options being considered by OPPD regarding North Omaha Station. “Converting the plant to natural gas, installing technology so the plant can continue to burn coal, replacing the coal production with energy efficiency options or shutting it down,” said Jordison.
“It’s not worth discussing installing control technology to retrofit the plant. There is a billion dollar technology that would keep some of the pollutants, like mercury and sulfur dioxide, out of the environment. But that doesn’t do anything about carbon dioxide and it doesn’t address the issue of mining coal or disposing of coal. The people of Nebraska don’t want to have that discussion,” asserted Jordison.
He said Nebraskans are intelligent and there have been lots of studies done across the state that show Nebraskans understand climate change. More than 50 percent get climate change. They understand that humans are causing it and that we should do something about it. Jordison said a lot of Nebraskans really like the idea of using wind energy.
As President of the Nebraska Farmers Union John Hansen would say, “There are no documented wind spill damages.”
Nebraska is finally starting to catch up with its neighbor. Anyone who has driven east on I-80 toward Des Moines has likely noticed the large, white wind turbines peppering fields to the left and right of the interstate near cities like Adair and Walnut.
Based on the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s (NREL) ranking of wind capacity, Nebraska is actually third in the nation in wind resources. Hansen said the NREL’s rankings are based on their modeling which is shaped by actual data from wind projects and their actual generation.
So the wind is blowing steadily in Nebraska and wind farmers are ready to increase their production.
“At the start of last year, we had 459 megawatts of wind and by the end of next year, we will have 1207 megawatts,” said Hansen.
But what exactly is a megawatt?
To better understand just how much energy we are talking about, it takes 746 watts of electricity to equal one horsepower. 1 kilowatt is a thousand watts. And a megawatt is 1000 kilowatts or a million watts. A megawatt is a lot of electricity.
Iowa currently has 5133 megawatts of wind, Wyoming has 1410, Colorado has 2301 and South Dakota has 783. Nebraska is still a bit behind in terms of wind production but Hansen said we are starting to catch up.
Choosing a site for a wind farm isn’t as easy as plopping a turbine in the ground and watching the blades spin. Hansen said because Nebraska is home to the North American migratory flyway, we have to be mindful of those portions of the Platte River where there are huge concentrations of migratory birds.
The Nebraska Farmers Union works with the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission and other federal wildlife agencies to be mindful of wind project sitings where there are obvious migratory bird conflicts.
The good news is there is a substantial portion of our state that has good wind resources. Hansen said a lot depends on prevailing wind patterns and flows as well as elevations.
“As you go up in the air, wind speeds increase in more of the wind streams. That’s why towers these days are on average 80 meters in the air. More and more towers are being built up to 100 meters in the air,” Hansen explained.
And he said once you get the up-front capital costs paid for, there’s no fuel cost associated with wind energy production. There are other benefits as well.
“Wind doesn’t consume any water and it doesn’t emit any carbon. It also helps provide domestic economic development in our state and benefits to rural communities. There are lease payments to landowners and increases to the local property tax base. There are a whole host of industries and sectors that benefit from wind generation and activity,” said Hansen.
There are small wind and solar projects in the state, but they are for commercial wind development. Hansen said we don’t export any wind out of the state at this point. All wind generated in the state goes to Nebraska utilities.
“We have built our utility on a diversity of fuels and now that wind is a viable fuel for us to use, it will create benefits and value for our customer owners in that diversity and in those longer-term low cost contracts that we have in place,” said Tim Burke, Vice President of Customer Service and Public Affairs for Omaha Public Power District (OPPD).
OPPD has been holding a series of open meetings where they provide stakeholders the opportunity to not only listen to the information shared at the meetings but also to offer their thoughts or ask questions of OPPD. Burke said the objective of the open meetings is to make sure that all decisions they make are equitable for all customers.
He said by the end of 2018, around 33 percent of OPPD’s portfolio will be made up of renewable sources, with most of that coming from wind. Burke explained most states, even on the west coast, may have a 30 percent renewable energy standard but aren’t expected to reach that goal until 2020-2025.
And more wind equals less coal generation. As recently as last month, Burke said OPPD has been getting some pretty good performance out of the wind farms they have today. That has meant some significant reductions in OPPD’s North Omaha facility production.
Burke said because the wind doesn’t blow every day, it’s considered an intermittent source of energy. That means wind energy will never be able to fully replace all current power sources.
“You can’t make the wind blow but you can help schedule the power from it and use it efficiently because we are increasingly able to predict when the wind is going to blow,” explained Hansen. “It’s actually easier to predict wind blowing than when it’s going to rain.”
Broken down, Burke said wind is an important component in energy generation, “A base load unit is traditionally a nuclear or coal unit or even natural gas in some parts of the U.S. If you picture a chart, nuclear is on the bottom. It’s a must-run (meant to start, operate and run). Intermittent resources like wind are above that. Natural gas is on top and is used in the event OPPD needs additional generation to support an increased peak load.”
One of the common questions that has come up during the stakeholder process has to do with people asking why we can’t just put up a bunch of solar panels and wind farms and shut down other power plants, such as the North Omaha coal plant.
According to Burke, it isn’t that simple. When the wind doesn’t blow or the sun doesn’t shine, you still have to have the capacity to be able to support the power load needed and you do that by maintaining that coal facility, even if it may mean on most days you operate at a lower capacity or end up replacing it with something that can ramp up fast like a natural gas facility.
It’s tough for most people to fit a wind turbine in their yard, especially if they don’t live in a rural area. So what can you do if you want to create your own energy from your very own home? Solar energy may be a viable option. It was for homeowner Ken Engle. Engle has Solar World Panels at his house that he ordered through United Electric Supply and he couldn’t be happier.
“I love my system. It’s a wonderful way to live and cut down on your electric bills,” he said.
Engle has 16 panels at his home and each inverter puts out a maximum of 225 watts, so he ultimately has 3600 watts capability. He said the inverter is what converts the electricity from DC current to AC.
The panels are daisy chained together in his system. The power they harness from the sun runs through a central inverter and subsequently moves through a charge controller, which charges batteries so Engle can use his battery system at night when there is no sun.
Though it didn’t take him long to have the system installed, Engle said it’s important to educate yourself and get the appropriate help to avoid costly and potentially injurious mistakes.
“There are a lot of electrical things you can hook up and they will work. But it’s not safe and you shouldn’t have it working,” Engle said.
Robert Webber, Master Electrician and Inspector General of the IAEI (International Association of Electrical Inspectors), was recommended to Engle by an electrical inspector. Webber went to Engle’s house, helped him make some corrections and got his system up and running, code compliant and working properly.
“Ken is a mechanical person and he is still adamant about saying you have to get someone to help you design and install your solar panels. When I went over there, I found he had some pretty dangerous situations that he hooked up and didn’t realize it,” said Webber.
He said a big part of the problem with people trying to do-it-themselves is when they do grab solar panels, put them in and don’t do it right, they just assume solar is not good because it doesn’t work. Webber said solar works when you pay attention to every detail and install it correctly.
Not limited to rooftops, there are a variety of ways to take advantage of solar panels. You can do them over a carport or cover your back patio. Engle has one in the backyard on an actuator so he can adjust the panels by moving them up or down to get full maximum usage of the sun.
And Nebraska is a great place to try solar with an average of 4 ½ to 5 hours of peak sun per day.
Webber said it’s important to remember that investing in a solar power production system is like investing in a house. He said payback, if the system is installed and designed correctly, would take about 7-10 years, depending on what you’re putting in.
Admittedly, there is a lot less power generation on cloudy days, especially in winter when it’s colder.
“In winter, the panels produce more voltage so Ken actually has a three pronged approach to his power: battery backup, solar panels and a generator,” Webber said.
The key to selling power back to the utility company is a piece of equipment known as a net meter. The net meter keeps track of the energy that’s produced and also tracks how much is used. If Engle produces more than he uses, the power company (through a purchase power agreement) credits him back.
Hansen said the state net metering law could definitely be improved, “We are not near as robust as we should be in Nebraska with smaller wind and solar producers. The Nebraska Farmers Union fought to help get net metering in the state for 15 years before we finally got it done. It’s not what we would like but it’s a start.”
For Webber, he said the only way to overcome the myths and misconceptions associated with solar energy are with installations that are correct, safe and maximize power production. He said there haven’t been any wars over sunshine yet.
“Given the challenges we are facing, from human impact that releases large amounts of additional carbon into the atmosphere, if we can generate a fourth or a third of our nation’s electrical generation by not emitting any carbon, then that’s a huge win for the environment and for society as a whole. It improves air quality. Renewable energy has no harmful emissions,” Hansen said.
He said it’s important that all people become responsible stewards of our earth.
For their part, Burke said OPPD is purchasing wind to help hedge against rising prices of other generating fuels, such as natural gas and coal.
OPPD will continue to offer open meetings for stakeholders to allow people to engage with the utility on a number of different items, including renewable energy in the state and the future of the North Omaha coal plant.
“You will continue to see us out in the public gathering that information and feedback from our customer owners. We are really trying to put the ‘public’ back into public power,” said Burke.
For more information: Nebraskansforsolar.org, Nebraskawindandsolarconference.com, SierraClub.org, oppdlistens.com