A1 A1
Nebraska's largest solar power project comes into clearer focus with OPPD bid request

The most solar power in state history should flow into the electrical outlets of eastern Nebraska homes and businesses by 2024.

That’s when the Omaha Public Power District aims to finish Nebraska’s largest solar power project, building it in or near the 13 counties OPPD serves. The new solar farms could be located in more than one site.

OPPD management is soliciting bids through mid-January to add OPPD’s first utility-scale solar power, producing 400 megawatts to 600 megawatts of electricity.

Bids received could include options for OPPD to run the solar power units itself with OPPD employees, or to buy the power produced by a private partner, which would operate the units.

If OPPD aims only to buy the power from the partner, it could sign a 20-year deal to make it financially feasible for a private company to assume the costs.

If the utility plans to eventually take over solar production, OPPD could instead choose a bid with an option to buy out its partner.

OPPD last year had the ability to generate nearly 2,700 megawatts of electricity and had contracts to buy hundreds more.

The OPPD board in November approved allowing management to negotiate with potential bidders outside of the public utility’s normal bidding process.

Board members say they expect this change to help management fetch a better price for ratepayers than initial cost estimates of up to $1 billion.

Managers say negotiating this way lets them get more specific with bidders about the utility’s needs than they could in a public bidding process.

It also keeps landowners from overpricing land the utility or contractor might need to purchase, Tim Burke, OPPD president, told The World-Herald.

“We will negotiate and come up with alternatives,” Burke said. “And we will share those with the board.”

Some observers have questioned whether it was wise for OPPD to circumvent a public bidding process.

But management points out that it secured lower-than-projected costs of decontamination work at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station by using a similar process.

That project appears likely to save about $40 million on deconstructing and storing parts of the former nuclear power plant, Burke said.

“I don’t love the process, but it makes sense,” said Craig Moody, an OPPD board member who is part of a board majority that wants the utility to move away from coal power.

The new solar power project, when complete, will lead to the closure of the last two units burning coal at OPPD’s power plant in north Omaha. The rest burn gas.

The 350 megawatts lost from those coal plants will be replaced by the two new gas plants OPPD will bid out once it decides where to build the solar.

After a World-Herald public records request, OPPD declined to release bid-related documents. Officials cited security exemptions in state statute written to protect critical infrastructure, including the power grid, and proprietary information.

Companies expressing interest in bidding were required to sign nondisclosure agreements to receive the bid-related documents.

Courtney Kennedy, OPPD’s alternative energy program manager, briefed the newspaper on information from the documents.

Here are some highlights about the project from that briefing, other public records and interviews with OPPD management:

  • OPPD does not expect to raise electricity rates or fees to build and operate the new solar power or gas, Burke said. It wants to offset costs the way it does with other power production, by selling any new power that OPPD customers don’t use.
  • The solar project will have to be built in Nebraska, under the bid request, and contractors might get knocked down a peg for building in a floodplain.
  • This new solar power won’t radiate from a single, massive 3,000-acre solar farm. It’ll spread solar power production among two to a dozen sites.
  • OPPD prefers solar farms that produce 50 to 250 megawatts of electricity, which management says gives ratepayers the most bang for their buck.
  • A key reason OPPD wants separate solar farms is to reduce the chances that a single disaster — a flood, wind or terror attack — stops solar power production.
  • Building multiple sites also boosts the chances the sun will shine at some sites, reducing how often OPPD has to use backup power from the gas plants.
  • OPPD intends to place the solar farms strategically, near OPPD power transmission lines, where they’re needed in the power grid.
  • The new solar sites will set aside land for future potential battery storage that might make solar power more reliable as battery technology improves.
  • The new natural gas plants will be able to offer backup power in less than an hour, versus 18 to 20 hours to ramp up the north Omaha coal units.
Check out nearly 100 stunning photos of Nebraska

'Think about the next step': Creighton grad takes on 60-day challenge to reflect on time in Omaha

With his time in Omaha ticking away, new Creighton University graduate Timi Onafowokan set himself a challenge that he hoped would get him in shape, shake the post-graduation blues and remember the city he’d come to love.

He decided to run for 60 minutes at 6 a.m. every day for 60 days straight. He set a course from his house in midtown Omaha to the beak of the bronze Billy the Bluejay statue outside Creighton’s downtown soccer stadium, then back home again by a circuitous route through the Gifford Park and Cathedral neighborhoods.

It wasn’t easy. Onafowokan developed a love-hate relationship with the California Street hill that climbs from the Creighton campus up to Duchesne Academy. He found out how cold his hands could get (colder than bronze Billy). He pushed though headaches, fevers, ice, snow and aching Achilles tendons.

He made it.

Onafowokan came to Omaha from Nigeria by way of England. He had attended Catholic school while growing up in Lagos. He started college in England, playing goalkeeper for the school soccer team as he had as a lad in Nigeria, then decided to continue his schooling in the United States.

He picked Creighton because in 2015, the Bluejay men’s soccer team was near the top of the NCAA heap, and Onafowokan harbored dreams of playing college soccer. It also helped that it’s a Jesuit school.

Onafowokan said he had no idea what to expect in Omaha, except that his relatives in the northeastern United States told him that Nebraska would be cold in winter.


Onafowokan said he felt “at peace” on his daily run from his house near 31st and Cass. The route was just under 6 miles.

What he immediately found is that people in Omaha can be very warm. Onafowokan said people immediately welcomed him. He had worried that he might face bias because of being African, but what he generally found was the opposite. He said Creighton students and faculty made him feel at home. The staff of Creighton’s International Student and Scholar Services were especially helpful.

A lot of that reception had to be because of Onafowokan’s own engaging personality. He’s bright, curious and plenty happy to converse. He got to know Creighton and other students quickly by becoming a student tour guide in his first year on campus.

Onafowokan didn’t achieve his dream of playing NCAA soccer. The closest he got was volunteering as an assistant student manager one season. And he sometimes struggled to find his way through college. His mother owns a school in Lagos. His father is a high-level corporate accountant. Onafowokan started out in chemical engineering. He switched to accounting. Eventually, with advisers’ help, he settled on a Bachelor of Science in business administration with a concentration in business intelligence and analytics. It combines business and computer technology, Onafowokan said.

He graduated in May. He got accepted to graduate school at Georgetown University to study sports industry management. But his friends left town. He had a breakup. He postponed starting graduate school for a semester to try to help with the Creighton men’s soccer team this fall, but he wasn’t needed. He couldn’t go to work right away for visa reasons.

Onafowokan decided to throw himself into a fitness challenge. He eventually did get a temporary job, interning with the Refugee Empowerment Center. He helped the organization set up and launch a web platform where donors can go online to schedule pickups of donations.

He’s a fan of “The Iceman” Wim Hof, a Dutchman known for such extreme challenges as running a half-marathon above the Arctic Circle barefoot. Onafowokan also is a fan of “Yes Theory,” a YouTube channel with nearly 5 million followers whose creators encourage people to take on challenges and “seek discomfort.”

Onafowokan knew that sitting around and moping wouldn’t make him feel better.

And Onafowokan wanted to fix Omaha in his memory. He really liked it here.

He decided running for 60 days straight was a worthy challenge. He’s glad he did it, although he wasn’t always happy doing it.

Sign up for The World-Herald's afternoon updates

Receive a summary of the day’s popular and trending stories from Omaha.com.

He started Oct. 14. He figured out a route, just under 6 miles, that at the beginning took about an hour, but which he had to extend as he got faster. The run took Onafowokan from his house near 31st and Cass Streets through the Creighton campus on Burt Street and the bronze Billy at Morrison Stadium, then through campus again on the Creighton mall that passes St. John’s Catholic Church and Creighton dorms. He ran up California Street past Cali Tacos and St. Cecilia Cathedral to 40th Street. He ran about a half-block downhill beyond 40th Street before pivoting around and winding his way back home.

How did Onafowokan know where he should turn around past 40th and California? It was the barking dog. Anyone who runs in town knows the fear of being chased. Onafowokan didn’t want to be chased. So he turned around before he got to the dog’s house.

“The best part was the peace and quiet,” he said. “No one’s really awake. Most people’s days are spent with work, people talking, like music playing. Even if you want to be in peace, you can sit in your house in the afternoon, and you know that it’s not going to be quiet. There could be music, there could be cars, there could be sirens going by. On the run, there was none of that, except for cars going by every now and then.”

As he ran, he felt “at peace.”

“It was a lot of reflection,” Onafowokan said. “Reflecting on the negatives of my time and the positives, how I’ve grown as a Christian.”

After each run, he did his daily devotions of Bible reading and prayer before work or weekend activities.

The worst part? Well, the worst stretch of the run is that Duchesne Academy hill, which midtown joggers and cyclists will agree is a bear. Onafowokan learned to take it one step at a time, and not to think about how far it was to the peak.


Timi Onafowokan runs by St. John’s Catholic Church on the Creighton campus on Dec. 13. The next day, Onafowokan was off to Nigeria for Christmas before heading to graduate school in Washington, D.C.

The part he thought he just couldn’t take was the cold hands. He would leave his keys and phone in a drawer on the screened-in porch of the house. After winter came, by the time he got home his hands were so cold that he could barely open the drawer because his hands were like stone.

The worst stretch of the 60 days came in early December. Onafowokan got sick. His Achilles tendons and muscles on the top of his feet hurt as bad as his head did. He slipped and fell more than once.

He had to talk himself into getting out of bed.

“It was painful to start, but like halfway through you forget about the pain,” he said. “The headache was so bad, when I woke up it was banging, but once I got halfway through, believe it or not, I couldn’t feel it anymore. Like 30 minutes into the run, I felt great. I didn’t feel the fever.”

Like taking the hill one step at a time, Onafowokan took the challenge one day at time, which sounds like a big-picture takeaway.

It worked for him. On Dec. 13, Onafowokan tapped Billy the Bluejay’s beak, sprinted past St. John’s in its Christmas lights, topped the Duchesne hill, turned around at the barking dog and ran on home before the sun rose. And then, for good measure, he took one more lap. He made it home just as a freezing rain began to fall.

The next day, he was off to Nigeria for Christmas before heading on to Washington, D.C., for grad school, feeling like he’d had a good run — or 60 of them — in Omaha.

The literal ups and downs of the hilly route paralleled the figurative ups and downs of Onafowokan’s spiritual journey and his trek through college.

“I just kept telling myself, you’re just taking each day as it comes,” he said. “Don’t think about when it will be Day 60. Don’t think about the end; think about now. Think about the next step.”

A roundup of inspirational stories from Midlanders with heart

Roberts will tap his inner umpire as he presides over senate trial

WASHINGTON (AP) — America's last prolonged look at Chief Justice John Roberts came 14 years ago, when he told senators during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing that judges should be like baseball umpires, impartially calling balls and strikes.

"Nobody ever went to a ballgame to see the umpire," Roberts said.

His hair grayer, the 64-year-old Roberts will return to the public eye as he makes the short trip from the Supreme Court to the Senate to preside over President Donald Trump's impeachment trial. He will be in the national spotlight, but will strive to be like that umpire — doing his best to avoid the partisan mire.

"He's going to look the part, he's going to play the part and he's the last person who wants the part," said Carter Phillips, who has argued 88 Supreme Court cases, 43 of them in front of Roberts.

He has a ready model he can follow: Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who never became the center of attention when he presided over President Bill Clinton's Senate trial.

As Roberts moves from the camera-free, relative anonymity of the Supreme Court to the glare of television lights in the Senate, he will have the chance to demonstrate by example what he has preached relentlessly in recent years: Judges are not politicians.

He has stuck to his mantra even as he and his fellow Republican appointees hold a firm 5-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court. Roberts has a solidly conservative voting record on the court, with a couple of notable exceptions that include sustaining President Barack Obama's health care law.

Trump has been among Roberts' critics, blasting the chief justice for his health care votes. While Roberts ignored those remarks, at least publicly, he clashed with the president last year when Trump lashed out at an "Obama judge" who ruled against the president's migrant asylum policy.

It's not as though there isn't plenty of controversy brewing in his regular place of work. Before the end of June, the justices are expected to decide cases involving guns, abortion, subpoenas for Trump financial records, workplace protections for LGBT people and the fate of an Obama-era program that shields young immigrants from deportation. It's possible the court will be asked to hear yet another case on the health care law before the term ends.

The high court has moved to the right with the addition of two Trump appointees, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, a development that has made Roberts the justice closest to its ideological center and most able to decide how far the court will move to the right, or left, in any case that otherwise divides liberals and conservatives.

In the Senate, though, the chief justice's powers are limited because any ruling he makes can be overridden by amajority vote.

He is not likely to put himself in the position of inviting reversal, said Paul M. Collins Jr., a political scientist and director of legal studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

"Any controversial rulings in support of either party will threaten the viewpoint that the court should be above politics. Democrats would perceive any ruling for Republicans as partisan, and if he ruled against the president, Republicans would allege he is holding a grudge," Collins said. The Senate's impeachment rules allow Roberts to put questions to a Senate vote, without first ruling himself.

Rehnquist looked back on his role in the Clinton trial with a smile. "I did nothing in particular and I did it very well," Rehnquist recalled two years after the trial, borrowing a line from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

Like Rehnquist, Roberts has virtually no experience running a trial, as opposed to the appellate proceedings at the Supreme Court. "I would be shocked if he suddenly becomes a very rigid jurist with respect to technical evidentiary rules," Phillips said.

The mechanics of the trial are not yet clear. Rehnquist had his top aide at the court, James Duff, and at least one law clerk on hand. He regularly consulted with the Senate parliamentarian before announcing rulings.

Roberts runs a more flexible Supreme Court than Rehnquist, who would cut off lawyers mid-sentence when the red light came on to show their time was up.

Whenever Roberts appears in public, inside the courtroom or elsewhere, he exudes a calm confidence that comes at least in part from preparation. As a leading Supreme Court advocate earlier in his career, Roberts would practice for high court arguments with his main points on five index cards. He rehearsed so that he could make those points in any order and be ready to answer 1,000 questions, even if he might only face 80 to 100 queries during a typical 30-minute argument, he told author Bryan Garner in an interview early in his tenure as chief justice.

He also has a quick wit that he has used to settle confusing situations. When the lights dimmed and then went out during arguments in 2016, Roberts quipped, "I knew we should have paid that bill."

Soon after he became chief justice, a light bulb exploded in the courtroom, startling the crowd, justices and court police included. Roberts helped restore calm by calling the incident "a trick they play on new chief justices all the time."

People turn to robot scribes that can mimic human imperfections

Roger and Vonita Byous were surprised when an anniversary card from their son arrived in the mail. They were even more surprised by the unrecognizable handwriting inside.

"I just started wondering, 'Whaaat?' " said Roger, 73. "It didn't look quite right, but we couldn't figure out why."

The Somerset, Kentucky, couple later learned that their son hadn't picked up the pen that scripted his heartfelt congratulations on 48 years of wedded bliss.

A robot had.

"It wasn't exactly a personal touch," Roger said, but "we're glad he remembered us."

Digitization has long reached deep into people's lives: Family photos are in the cloud. Mom's recipes are indexed on an app. Breakups can arrive overnight, via text.

Now technology is being deployed to try to replicate a human touch, as a growing number of consumers turn to pen-wielding robots that can mimic the loops and patterns of the human hand.

These robot-scribed cards and letters are testing the proposition that machines can generate the intimacy of a handwritten note. Some services include smudges and ink blots in their mailings. Others program the robots to be imprecise — varying the pressure on the pens, for example, or inconsistently sizing characters and spacing — to make the writing appear believably human.

At Handwrytten, a fast-growing service in Phoenix, robots are outfitted with Pilot G2 pens in blue ink because, founder David Wachs says, it's "more realistic-looking" than black. The pens also offer an advantage over even the most sophisticated printouts: the telltale imprint they leave on paper.

But the results can be clumsy, even unsettling. Critics bristle at the idea of outsourcing personal correspondence, saying it renders it meaningless. And they see it as one more example of how technology is being used to fake authenticity, even if it does not rise to the level of "deepfakes" or other digital manipulation.

"Having a robot write for you — it's a rather clever business plan, but it seems like a complete betrayal," said Ellen Handler Spitz, a senior lecturer in humanities at Yale University. "Handwritten notes are special precisely because they are intimate, because a part of your body is touching the paper, creating a personal connection."

When the Byouses finally asked their son, Shanan, about the mysterious cursive on their card, he told them that he used theHandwrytten app because it was cheaper — and easier — than going to the store, picking out a card and paying for postage. Plus, he said, he liked that he could schedule it ahead of time.

"To me, it's the same, whether a robot writes it or I do," said Shanan, 47. "What matters is that I was thinking of them."

Two weeks after their anniversary, another robot-written card arrived. This one wished his mother a happy birthday.

The robots are running nonstop at Wachs' Phoenix warehouse, scribbling letters to Grandma, thank-you notes and, these days, holiday cards. Wachs used to make his living blasting millions of targeted text messages for corporate clients, until he became convinced there was a better way to get noticed.

"When you receive 200 emails a day, plus tweets and text messages, none of it stands out anymore unless it's handwritten," he said. "It's become that much harder to get someone's attention."

Today, Wachs has 80 robots, and demand is so brisk that he builds two to three more each week to keep pace with 100,000 pieces of correspondence that go out monthly.

"We started with a basic idea: to figure out how to make sending a handwritten note as easy as sending a text message or email," said Wachs, who founded Handwrytten in 2014 after selling his mobile marketing agency.

His earliest clients included religious groups urging inmates to find salvation in Jesus, and grown children checking in with mom and dad. As business grew, his clientele extended to include luxury retailers, mortgage brokers, car manufacturers and nonprofit groups that pay about $3 per card.

The holidays are particularly busy, with December accounting for about 15% of the year's sales. Wachs buys pens in packs of 1,452 and Forever stamps in spools of 10,000. Annual revenue, in the millions, is on track to triple this year.

In-house graphic designers create the company's cards. Handwrytten offers about 20 fonts with names like Executive Adam (allcaps and angular) and Loopy Ruthie (cursive and rounded).

Customers also can have their own handwriting replicated, for $1,000, by submitting multiple samples that include six versions of the alphabet and nearly a dozen nonsensical sentences like, "Did the keynote pharaoh drop a shoe in Cuba?" They can also add a real signature (for a one-time fee of $150), as well as foreign characters, hearts and smiley faces. The company has made about 60 custom fonts — mostly for politicians and business executives.

Wachs, who has degrees in computer science and economics from the University of Pennsylvania, makes the robots with a 3D printer and laser cutter. But, he says, they're slow. It takes four to five minutes to write a typical holiday card, though they offer at least one advantage: "They don't take breaks like humans do."

The robots work 24 hours a day and send Slack messages when they're running out of paper or ink. Attending to their needs can be tedious: Pens dry up after about 150 pages, and the machines hold only about 50 sheets at a time. Handwrytten also has 25 human employees, including mobile developers, software engineers and staffers who stuff envelopes. (Robots, though, do the sealing and stamping.)

The company is among a growing number of card-writing services, each with its own spin. Felt in Telluride, Colorado, gives customers the option to write cards themselves using a finger or stylus on their phone screens. New Yorkbased Postable allows users to schedule a year's worth of birthday and anniversary cards. Other services take a decidedly old-school approach by hiring actual humans to write thousands of notes a week.

"As the world becomes more automated, our products become that much more effective," said Anatoliy Birger, director of sales for Letter Friend, which typically charges $4 to $5 per human-written card. "We are filling a real need."

Sheldon Yellen, 61, chief executive of Belfor Holdings, a Michigan-based company that offers disaster recovery services, writes well over 12,000 cards each year to his employees — and has no intention of stopping.

Yellen began the tradition 30 years ago, when he had a staff of 19. But as the payroll has swelled to thousands, he has fine-tuned his system for organizing and mailing cards. His assistants keep a suitcase filled with cards and pre-addressed envelopes on his private plane. He flies at least three days a week, he said, and uses a blue gel pen towrite about 150 cards on each leg. When fatigue sets in, he does wrist rolls and finger stretches.

"Every time I get a few free minutes, I handwrite a card," Yellen said. In all, he sends 9,200 birthday cards a year, plus a few thousand notes to say thank you, congratulations or get well soon.

"Doing this has helped build a culture of compassion, family and respect," he said. Last year, on his 60th birthday, employees filled his office with 8,000 birthday cards.

Lately, though, he has been receiving letters from card-writing services, asking him for his business. He writes back to each one — by hand. "I tell them, 'Thank you so much,' " he said. " 'However, I am still committed to personally handwriting my own cards.' "