Plans to stop burning coal next year at the North Omaha Station, a chief supplier of electricity to the region, likely won’t happen on schedule.
Instead, the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) wants North Omaha Station, one of the country’s top emitters of nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide, to keep operating until 2026.
OPPD said the delayed closure was unavoidable but disappointed those who expected the utility to make good on a pledge to stop burning coal at North Omaha Station by the end of 2023.
North Omaha Station joins several power plants across the country whose owners had pledged to stop burning coal but now recently required extensions due to factors ranging from the consequences of overseas wars to a backlog of necessary studies by regional grid operators before closing power generators.
Brad Underwood, OPPD’s vice president of system transformations, said the utility that serves 855,000 people in Omaha and 13 surrounding counties plans to stick to its goal of net zero emissions by 2050.
“It’s just going to take us more time to get these things done,” Underwood said.
It amounts to a frustrating no-win scenario for Eric Williams, director of the OPPD board. Williams leads the board and represents the district where the North Omaha Station is located – a predominantly black neighborhood.
He recently held meetings with the community seeking their feedback on the plan.
“They expressed they were concerned that this would mean continued emissions in North Omaha,” Williams said. “The coal operations there have higher levels of emissions in one part of town than other parts of Omaha and people expressed concerns about how we’re balancing our mission.”
The chief cause for extending North Omaha Station’s coal-burning life is because the Southwest Power Pool — the regional operator of the Midwest’s power grid — has a backlog of studies meant to ensure that a utility’s decision to close coal plants and transitioning to renewable energy sources won’t sacrifice the reliable supply of electricity to customers.
Federal rules require such studies — called interconnection studies — before renewable energy projects like wind and solar generators can connect to the electric grid.
SPP is currently studying 510 renewable energy projects that represent a combined 100 gigawatts of power. That means initiatives like retiring North Omaha Station have to wait while the grid operator catches up.
“The timing at which we want to make this transition is being significantly challenged by the circumstances we’re in,” Underwood said. “The primary struggle is the speed of the interconnection study.”
David Kelley, who oversees interconnection studies for SPP, said the study backlog won’t clear until 2024.
“The notion that there is a delay in getting the answers that some of these customers need in order to make decisions when building new generation or retiring existing generation — that is a fact that’s not just within the SSP but throughout the country,” Kelley said.
In June, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a notice of proposed rulemaking to ease its interconnection study rules due to a growing backlog of requests across the country.
“We are witnessing unprecedent[ed] demand for new resources seeking to interconnect to the transmission grid, and queue delays are hindering customers’ access to new, low-cost generation,” said FERC Chairman Richard Glick in a statement on the proposed changes.
Supply chain issues have also complicated the closure of coal plants, according to Ashok Gupta, senior energy economist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He said energy providers seeking to switch to renewable energy options are running into issues procuring project materials.
“As you retire coal plants you have to replace some with wind, solar, battery storage and other things and the build out has been slowed out because of the pandemic, because of the war in Ukraine, because of a combination of things,” Gupta said.
Supply chain disruptions caused power providers to delay closing at least five other coal-burning plants – three in Wisconsin and one each in Indiana and New Mexico.
In Missouri, Ameren recently announced the Sioux Energy Center in West Alton would continue burning coal for at least two years, but for a different reason.
Ajay Arora, Ameren’s chief renewable development officer, said the utility had to move up Rush Island Energy Center’s closure because of a lawsuit filed by the federal government in 2011 that claimed the plant emits pollutants at levels that break the law.
Arora said that without Rush Island’s power production, the Sioux plant needs to continue to burn coal until 2030, instead of 2028.
Even so, the nationwide trend still shows energy providers are moving away from coal and toward wind, gas and solar power.
“If you look at the last 10 years and the next 10 years, coal is going to keep declining and wind and solar is going to keep increasing,” Gupta said. “The longer term trendline is what we should be paying attention to.”
This story comes from the Midwest Newsroom, an investigative journalism collaboration including IPR, KCUR 89.3, Nebraska Public Media News, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR.