Nebraska utilities say Bostelman plan to avoid rolling blackouts is unnecessary

By: - January 31, 2022 5:00 am

A coal-fired power plant in Romeoville, Illinois. Scott Olson/GettyImages)

LINCOLN — Representatives of the state’s public utilities lined up last week to oppose a bill that was portrayed as a way to avoid the rolling blackouts of last year’s polar vortex.

No one testified in favor of a proposal presented Thursday to the Legislature’s Natural Resources Committee by State Sen. Bruce Bostelman of Brainard, Several letters of opposition were also submitted.

Under Bostelman’s proposal, OPPD and NPPD would be required to maintain a 45-day fuel supply on site to generate electricity or identify suppliers who can provide adequate fuel during peak periods.

Legislative Bill 1047 would also add the word “reliable” to state laws that now require the state’s public utilities to provide an “adequate” supply of electricity.

“This bill is about (energy) reliability for citizens of Nebraska,” said Bostelman.

Officials with the Omaha Public Power District and Nebraska Public Power District said problems during the February 2021 weather event were primarily in other states and were mostly linked to natural gas and nuclear power generating facilities in the South that were knocked offline by the frigid weather.

They portrayed Bostelman’s proposal as unnecessary and confusing and said it could possibly lead to unintended consequences. They added that Nebraska generated more power than it needed during the cold snap.

“We were fortunate. Our people did a good job,” said John McClure, executive vice president/chief counsel with NPPD.

Joseph Lang, an energy regulatory official with OPPD, agreed.

Lang said the multi-state Southwest Power Pool, of which Nebraska is a member, is working to require utilities in Texas and other Southern states to make power plants more resilient to weather extremes like the cold snap.

“None of us are going to go willy-nilly into the future and do it all with renewable energy. We can’t.”

– John McClure, executive vice president/chief counsel with NPPD

An industry group, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission are also pushing new standards for reliability during extreme weather, Lang said.

Critics of the bill said that the Cooper Nuclear Station at Brownville, Nebraska, has a 100-day fuel supply. They also said it would be impossible to guarantee what fuel suppliers could provide.

Much of the public hearing involved OPPD and NPPD officials defending their decision to shift to more renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. 

State Sens. Mike Groene of North Platte and Dan Hughes of Venango questioned the wisdom of shifting to more “intermittent” power sources like wind and solar, while not emphasizing “base load” power sources like coal and nuclear, which can generate electricity 24/7.

Such a shift, Bostelman said, raises the risk of another rolling blackout. 

McClure, Lang and others said renewable energy was not the problem during last year’s polar vortex.

The Southwest Power Pool, which manages the electric grid across 17 states, lost half of its natural gas supply during the deep freeze, McClure said, and one nuclear power plant in Texas shut down because of the extreme cold.

McClure said NPPD would not sacrifice reliability in reaching its goal of going “carbon-free” by 2050. OPPD has a similar goal.

“None of us are going to go willy-nilly into the future and do it all with renewable energy. We can’t,” McClure said.

The officials testified that about 10% of NPPD’s electric generation is via wind turbines, while OPPD gets about 40% from wind.

At the end of the hearing, Bostelman said he didn’t think he was “that far off” from getting the utilities’ support and would continue to work on the bill.

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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.