More renewable energy is on the way for the Omaha Public Power District, including a potential community solar project that would let ratepayers have an active part in the district’s clean energy portfolio.

Plans for the community solar project are in very early stages. The utility said it would share more details in the first quarter of 2018.

Meanwhile, the board of directors of Omaha’s ratepayer-owned electric utility Thursday authorized OPPD management to add up to 350 megawatts of additional wind energy to its generating portfolio.

That authorization could also include more wind energy for the Nebraska Public Power District. Directors for the Columbus-based electric utility authorized a measure Thursday morning that, unlike OPPD’s, is contingent on an influx of new demand for electricity from something like a large economic development project, for example.

“Our other (existing) customers would not be taking any of this new energy,” said Dave Rich, NPPD’s sustainable energy manager.

OPPD has moved quickly in the direction of wind generation, especially in the past year. Its shift away from more traditional power sources like coal and nuclear is gaining enough steam that it has changed how Wall Street views the utility.

John Medina covers the organization for Moody’s Investors Service in New York and affirmed a stable outlook for OPPD in a research note published Nov. 29. Medina noted that it’s imperative for the utility’s management to properly adjust to a generation mix that is markedly different from the days of yore.

“They haven’t had to balance their load with intermittent resources to the degree with which they’ll have to in the future,” Medina said. In other words, OPPD will need to deal with the fickleness of the wind and sun, for instance, instead of relying on the always-on power provided by coal or nuclear.

“It’s just managing that change and managing the integration” of more variable wind-powered generation as the utility proceeds to a not-so-distant future in which more than half of its retail sales of electricity will come from renewable sources, Medina said.

Even though Nebraska wind farms are the most productive in the U.S., the wind doesn’t always blow. That means being too reliant on variable generation sources like wind — or solar, for that matter — could present a risk to reliability of service if OPPD fails to adapt to this new generation profile.

Medina noted that such a scenario seems unlikely, however, given how well the district has adjusted to significant growth of renewables in its generation mix recently. Just 13 percent of the utility’s electricity came from wind in 2016, and wind’s share is expected to be about 30 percent this year.

That total is expected to surge to more than 50 percent by year-end 2020.

By then, OPPD will have replaced 42 percent of the generating capacity lost through the closure of the Fort Calhoun nuclear plant late last year. Because the utility had so much surplus generating capacity, OPPD does not need to replace all 478 megawatts of Calhoun’s output.

Looking ahead, Moody’s and others are keeping a keen eye on effective management of the decades-long decommissioning process at Calhoun.

As part of the $1.1 billion budget approved by OPPD board members Thursday, the utility plans to sock away $156 million for decommissioning at the now-closed plant in 2018. In 2017, OPPD contributed about $135 million to the fund. The balance of funds saved for the project totaled less than $400 million at the time of the early closure.

The project is expected to cost about $1.2 billion in 2016 dollars, and if it takes the entire 60-year term allowed by its federal regulator, the inflation-adjusted cost would total roughly $3 billion.

Despite significant costs for that project, the utility’s planned 2018 capital projects — nearly $150 million in total — will be funded with cash from ratepayer revenues. OPPD funded all $123 million worth of capital projects in 2017 with cash, as well.

Paying with cash instead of issuing bonds to cover those expenses means OPPD doesn’t have to use additional revenue from ratepayers to pay interest to bondholders. The utility will save $700,000 in payments for bond principal and interest in 2018 through a $220 million bond refinancing that it carried out early last week.

Over the next 25 years, the refinancing will save the district $22.3 million, since the new bonds have lower interest rates than the ones they replaced, said John Thurber, OPPD’s division manager of finance.

The 2018 budget includes no general rate increase, but the monthly fixed-service charge on residential customers’ bills will increase $5 to $25 beginning in January, as already announced in 2015., 402-444-1534

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