The 13-county public utility that powers the Omaha area and much of eastern Nebraska has two board seats in play during the May 15 primary.
Voters in and near southwest Omaha and northwest Omaha will select two candidates each to compete in this fall’s general election for the Omaha Public Power District board. They’ll weigh a pair of incumbents, one with two decades of service, the other new, and three challengers apiece.
Both incumbents — longtime board member Mike Cavanaugh in southwest Omaha’s Subdivision 8 and appointee Mark Treinen in northwest Omaha’s Subdivision 1 — stress OPPD’s positive trajectory. They cite the utility’s improved financial performance, cost controls, momentum toward using 50 percent renewable energy by 2020-21 and work to safely shutter Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station.
Cavanaugh, a retired Omaha police lieutenant seeking his fifth term, says the utility has grown into a prominent role in regional economic development. He points to the Facebook data center project in Papillion, which he says would not have happened without OPPD’s efforts to secure renewable energy.
Cavanaugh says he hopes people in his district will remember the work he has done to keep electricity rates competitive and affordable, including a five-year pledge to hold rates steady. “I think the experience of serving on the board is hard to replace,” he said.
Treinen, appointed in November to fill Rich Hurley’s seat, says he is already applying his business experience on the board, including stints in accounting, business and finance, most recently at Valmont Industries.
He says he has been impressed with the swift movement of OPPD’s management away from coal and toward cleaner, more renewable sources of energy, particularly wind. He’s proud of OPPD’s push to accelerate how quickly it replaces traditional high-pressure sodium streetlights with LED lights.
“It’s an interesting industry, where you’re trying to convince your customers to use less of what you’re selling them,” he said. “Economic growth is key.”
Cavanaugh’s challengers include Linda Duckworth, a longtime officer in the League of Women Voters of Nebraska and the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha.
Duckworth says the OPPD board needs new thinking. She doesn’t like hearing OPPD talk about holding rates steady when the utility recently raised the fees people pay. She wants the utility to focus on keeping total electrical bills more affordable. She cited statistics that show Nebraska as lagging in energy efficiency rankings and said OPPD should do more outreach and get more creative.
“I think the states that do the best have the best incentives for efficiency,” she said. “How can we get to the point where we don’t need to generate as much electricity?”
Jim Dinan, a former account executive at TD Ameritrade, says he didn’t know his challenger when he filed to run. He saw the Omaha political name “Cavanaugh” and laughed.
But his experience in the Air Force taught him not to run from a fight. He wants OPPD to emphasize customer service. He likes the district’s careful movement toward boosting its use of renewable energy sources, as well as keeping coal as a backup in case natural gas costs rise.
He also has a family connection to OPPD: “My dad worked there his whole life, retired from there, so I know what that place means to the people who work there.”
Local electrician Ron Griger II ran because he wanted to give back. His focus is improved accountability.
“If you say you’re going to do something, I expect it to be done,” he said.
Treinen’s race attracted last-minute filers who said they didn’t want an appointed board member to go unchallenged.
One of his challengers, Amanda Bogner, runs her own business in Omaha, Energy Studio Inc., that counsels companies on how to design workplaces that use energy more efficiently.
She says she would like OPPD to move toward renewable energy beyond the 50 percent goal, including working with larger users to generate more power closer to where it’s needed. Continued advances in battery technology should address concerns about renewable sources of energy that don’t consistently produce power.
Another challenger, OPPD retiree Kristine Dungan, says she wants to see the board be more assertive with management about the need to be more transparent with the public.
She points to decisions made to invest more money than should have been spent on repairing Fort Calhoun before voting to close it as the sort of costly choices that more openness could have avoided. Her interest is in representing the perspectives of employees and customers.
Senior network specialist Dustin Jennings, who served in the Air Force from 2001-2007, ran because he wanted voters to have a choice.
He says ratepayers have faced significant and damaging increases to their bills, whether the board wants to call them rate increases or not. He’d like to tie executive compensation increases to when ratepayers pay less. He’d also like to see the OPPD board lobby the Legislature on behalf of overturning the law that restricts public power companies from offering broadband Internet. He says it could help rural access.
World-Herald researcher Sheritha Jones contributed to this report.