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Obscure state board seeks more authority over Nebraska public power districts
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Obscure state board seeks more authority over Nebraska public power districts

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A proposal by an obscure state board to obtain more authority over public power districts has created a firestorm of concern and confusion among those utilities and some environmental groups.

The Nebraska Power Review Board, at its meeting Friday morning, will discuss whether the five-member board, appointed by the governor, should have the final say over contracts reached between power districts and energy suppliers, such as wind farms, and be able to weigh in on whether existing power plants should be decommissioned.

A representative of the state’s public power utilities said she was puzzled about the purpose of such a change, and an official with the Sierra Club expressed concern that it could hinder expanded use of renewable energy.

Shelley Sahling-Zart of the Nebraska Power Association, which represents the state’s public power districts, said that such changes could have unintended consequences, and take away local control now in the hands of elected utility boards, such as those at the Omaha Public Power District and Nebraska Public Power District.

“Let’s articulate clearly what problem you’re seeking to address. We’re just guessing on some things (now),” said Sahling-Zart, a vice president with the Lincoln Electric System.

But the executive director/general counsel of the Power Review Board said the proposal is only a preliminary draft intended to begin a discussion on whether the board needs to have a greater role in determining whether Nebraska has adequate power resources, and resilient sources of power, to avoid blackouts such as the one caused by a polar vortex in February.

Tim Texel said he drafted the proposal at the direction of his board members, who wondered if the Power Review Board should take a greater role in preventing situations like what happened in Texas and Oklahoma, where power plants and natural gas supplies shut down because they weren’t adequately protected against extreme cold.

“My board just wanted to be sure we don’t have what they had down in Texas,” Texel said. “We really don’t do this often, but we wanted to have a discussion, and we wanted to do it in public.”

He rejected characterizations of the proposal as a “power grab” or “anti-wind.”

In recent years, Nebraska utilities have moved away from construction of new power plants — which the Power Review Board currently has authority to approve or deny — and instead used “power purchase agreements” to obtain additional electricity, mostly from new wind farms. Such power purchase agreements are currently exempt under state law from review by the Power Review Board, and Texel said that his board wondered if that ought to change given the changes in the power industry.

Ken Winston, an organizer with the Nebraska chapter of the Sierra Club, said he’s suspicious of the board’s proposal because it doesn’t specifically address winter blackouts. Instead, Winston said it “would interfere with local decisions related to renewable energy and retiring coal plants.”

“This proposal is another example of misguided bureaucratic overreach attempting to block responsible decisions by local public power districts,” he said.

It also would take a significant increase in staff at the Power Review Board, Winston added.

John Hansen of the Nebraska Farmers Union, which has championed wind energy development, said the Power Review Board has traditionally been “notoriously neutral” on changes in legislation. Its proposal to gain more authority over power districts is quite a departure, he said.

An official with NPPD said Wednesday that the utility looked forward to discussing the issue with the Power Review Board, but felt that current state law was adequate. A statement from OPPD indicated that the Omaha-based utility also was aware of the proposal.

Two members of the Power Review Board, Frank Reida of Omaha and Dennis Grennan of Columbus, declined to comment Wednesday and instead referred questions to Texel.

Texel said that the Power Review Board has a role to play in ensuring, statewide, that Nebraska has adequate power resources that can withstand harsh weather. That, he said, is why his board directed him to draft a proposal for discussion. If the reaction is negative, Texel said the board will abandon plans to draft any legislation.

“The reaction has not been positive,” he said. “But that’s why you have a discussion on these issues.”

While the proposal is labeled as a “draft” and for “discussion” only, opponents want more discussion of such a major change before any proposed legislation is presented to the Nebraska Legislature, which reconvenes in less than three months.

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