For Public Utilities, Customers Spark Pioneering Policy with a Vote — Episode 133 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 30 Jun 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Utility companies may seem out of reach, and some decisions are made behind closed doors, but everyone has the right to be heard by their electric provider.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Eric Williams, Vice Chair of the Omaha Public Power District’s Board of Directors. Williams ran for a seat on the utility’s Board of Directors in 2017 out of concern for steep fixed charges. Farrell and Williams discuss the growing momentum for clean energy and how people drive change within public utilities.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Eric Williams: Clean energy really has arrived. And it is something that we need to recognize. And the places like the EIA and others who have consistently underestimated the cost-effectiveness of clean energy, I think they need to make sure they understand that this is the new baseline for the industry. And we need to be ready to see implementation because people will want it. And it is the most cost effective.
John Farrell: Cries of socialism were common political mudslinging in the recent presidential election, but public ownership is actually quite common among electric utilities all over. 2000 communities nationwide own their own utility company. In the case of Nebraska, literally every utility company is a public entity. Eric Williams, vice chair of the board of the Omaha Public Power District, OPPD – a utility producing 40% of its electricity from wind power, joined me in January of 2021 to talk about the advantages of public power. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a biweekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy. Eric, welcome to Local Energy Rules.
Eric Williams: Yeah. Great. Thanks very much, John. I’m glad to be here. I’m glad to work alongside so many other communities as we address climate change and work to strengthen our local power systems and our communities.
John Farrell: I wanted to start off by just talking to you about a little bit about kind of what motivated you, you know, about two years into your first term on the Omaha District board. What motivated you to run for the board? Why did you want to help run your local utility?
Eric Williams: I, uh, I’ve been involved in clean energy and climate policy in Nebraska for probably about 12 or 15 years. Um, I helped to start the Omaha biofuels co-op that was kind of my first foray into clean energy. And from there, I got involved with a number of other organizations, including beginning to kind of monitor what was going on at our local public power district at OPPD. And then in about 2017, when I realized that the, um, board seat where I live was going to be up for election, I decided that the best way for me to take the next step in the clean energy advocacy and policy leadership in our community was to be a candidate for the board of directors. And so I started in the summer of 2017. The election went until November of 2018, and then I joined the board in January of 2019.

The primary reasons that I wanted to be a candidate and then a director at OPPD were outlined pretty clearly in my campaign. I was focused on a fair rates, public engagement, and new energy market opportunities. In 2015, there was a rate restructuring at OPPD that increased the fixed fee. And that was a concern to me and a number of other people. And I think that really encouraged people who wanted to see some new policy at OPPD to become involved, to run for the board of directors, just like I did, and then see what other ways we could continue to improve our local electric utility. The fixed fee is somewhat of a regressive rate policy and particularly coupled with the declining block structure that we had, that it discourages energy savings and really hurts the economics of distributed energy generation. And so those two components were, were really what was most important to me.

And additionally, the economic and environmental justice component of a high fixed fee, which means that it gets less expensive as you consume more. That was a, that was kind of the primary point of my campaign. And I talked about it a lot in 2018, and I’ve talked about it a lot since joining the board. I mentioned the second component was public engagement. You highlighted that Nebraska is the only all public power state. And so I feel a strong responsibility to represent the people of my district and engage with them so that they feel their voices are heard on the Board of Directors and then in the policymaking, within our local electric utility. The third thing I highlighted was a little bit more technical. I, uh, during the campaign, I said new energy market opportunities, but that specifically means clean energy, energy storage, beneficial electrification, investing in energy sources that we have here in Nebraska and finding ways that we can update our policies and make sure that OPPD is really delivering for the people of our district. And so those three things were the central points of my campaign. And they’ve been the central points that I focused on in the first couple of years on the board.

John Farrell: So we’ve already kind of touched on this, about how all Nebraska utilities are unique in being public power entities. I guess maybe one question about that is just, do you feel like that means a significant difference in how customers expect their utility to relate to them in terms of what they feel like they can expect from the utility?
Eric Williams: Yeah, there are three large utilities in Nebraska and that would be OPPD, covering about 5,000 square miles and 13 counties on the east part of Nebraska; the Nebraska Public Power District or NPPD, covering most of the rest of the state with a lot of wholesale customers, including a lot of cities; and then Lincoln Electric System, which is slightly different. It’s a municipally controlled utility where the board members are appointed by the mayor. And so by electing the mayor, she then appoints the advisory board. But the three large public power districts in Nebraska have all kind of been working in the same direction in recent years to make sure we are hearing what it is that the customer owners of the utilities want. And increasingly, as the Yale Climate Communications study that was just released highlights, more and more people across the political spectrum and across the country desire clean energy from their utilities and they are willing to pay just a little bit more if necessary to make sure that happens. So the public power structure in Nebraska, I think is doing an excellent job of meeting our mission to provide affordable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive energy to our customers. And I think that’s making sure that we know what the customers want and that we are setting policy to deliver. I think that Nebraska has a, a unique and beneficial system to make that happen.
John Farrell: One achievement already in your service on the board has been the adoption of the net zero carbon electricity goal by 2050. Now in the grand scheme of things that are happening around the country, it’s maybe not as ambitious as some other utility goals that we’ve been seeing, you know, target dates of like 2030 or 2040, but it seems like a pretty big shift for a utility whose electricity was two-thirds from coal based power plants as recently as 2017. Could you share a little bit more about like, what are the specifics of the goal? What would it mean to achieve it? And given that OPPD is already pretty close to 40% renewable energy this year, do you think that that calendar could potentially move up?
Eric Williams: Yeah, so the, the 2010s were a very interesting time at OPPD. We began purchasing wind energy in about 2006, 2008, and then expanding the purchase of wind energy throughout the 2010s up to the about a thousand megawatts of wind energy that we currently have. So most of the renewable energy we have comes from that source. During that same decade, the Fort Calhoun nuclear station was determined by the board that that was no longer going to be part of our generation fleet. So you mentioned the percentage of renewable or carbon based electric generation that we had. That’s a pretty big shift when the nuclear station went offline. And then as we’ve been shifting to more renewable energy, that’s what has largely replaced the non-carbon, but nuclear generated energy. So in 2018, that, that was the first time that a specific goal for OPPD was set that included a reference to carbon. And that was to show a reduction of the carbon intensity. There was a lot of discussion and there was a lot of customer owner feedback during that policy update. And so it was the first time that we said, yeah, uh, well, the board at the time said that, um, yes, carbon should be one of the things that we measure and monitor and are held accountable for in our public utility.

In 2019, when I joined the board, there were a couple other new board members as well. And one of the things that we, uh, collectively agreed needed to be reassessed was what’s called strategic directive number seven on environmental stewardship. And that’s where we set the outcome that we’re looking to monitor. That’s where the 20% carbon intensity reduction metric was set originally. And, uh, and the board decided that rather than measuring carbon intensity, the most important measurement should really just be the absolute amount of carbon. And so in 2019, that policy was updated to say the net zero carbon by 2050 in all of our operations. And so there have been a couple of times recently where that has been discussed, but I think the recognition that carbon intensity is good – It’s good to reduce your carbon intensity, but that isn’t really what controls the, the primary desired outcome that we want to have an impact over, which is reducing the causes of climate change. And so if you reduce your carbon intensity, your absolute carbon emissions could still be increased. And I think in 2019, it was collectively decided that the best way to serve the environmentally sensitive portion of our mission was to update that, to say a net zero carbon goal, and, and from OPPD setting our goal, I think that’s demonstrated kind of a, the path forward across the state. Just a couple of months ago, Lincoln Electric System established their own net zero carbon goal with the date of 2040 and Nebraska Public Power District is currently in the process of doing a decarbonization study to determine what will be the timeline and the level of carbon reduction that will be the best for their customers as well.

So I think since OPPD began the discussion in 2018 and made that big update, there’s really been a lot of progress in our state. And I think we have a bright future of continuing to deliver improvements in those policies by, by all of the major utilities across Nebraska.

John Farrell: Given you’ve got like 40% of the electricity sold by OPPD already comes from wind. And there’s been a lot of investment in that. One of the things I think you’re blessed with in Nebraska is an abundance of both of wind energy and of solar energy. And especially, you know, when you’ve got Lincoln has already set their net zero goal by 2040. Do you think that that timeline could move up? Are you thinking that there’s, I also think about sort of the long tail here, a lot of policies we’re seeing lately, you’re saying like, oh, well, it’d be like an 80% reduction by 2030. And then it’s really kind of about cleaning up the rest on that longer tail. What do you think it’s going to look like in terms of moving toward that goal for OPPD?
Eric Williams: So I think the early steps are quite a lot simpler than the later steps, which is why we’ve been able to move to a thousand megawatts of wind quite easily over the last 10 years, not to dismiss the effort that was needed there, but that has been accomplished. And it’s been very successful. I mentioned that our metric is under strategic directive seven and a lot of specific alphabet soup policy stuff has been, uh, has been a new experience for me. But after the strategic directive, we have a strategic initiative, which is called Pathways to Decarbonization. And that is a study that is currently being undertaken by the management and the employees at OPPD to help define how to get from where we currently are to that specific end outcome of net zero carbon by 2050. And that study has been ongoing for about 12 months now and is expected to be completed at the end of 2021.

So when we talk about what will the path from where we are, to the zero carbon outcome look like? That is currently being developed and the board of directors works primarily, but the senior management team, and we’ve had pretty regular updates and there will be a public update about the de-carbonization work at our next monthly board meeting. And so we’re making sure that again, that public engagement that, that I focused on in my campaign is being delivered so that people know we’ve said, we want to achieve this goal now, how are we going to do that? I think it’s important that we make sure we continue to provide that information as things update through time. And, and you specifically asked about, can the timeline be advanced? I think that we have set a bright north star goal, as our CEO and president has said, of net zero carbon by 2050.

I think that timeline is, uh, is, is a good one to keep in mind, but in the interim, uh, I’m interested to see if we might define other metrics along the way because it’s, 2050 is 30 years away and there will be a lot of work between now and then. So do we need to make sure an established kind of interim goals as we look toward the long-term outcome? I think that’s something that we should discuss and that we should make sure we have kind of checkpoints as we get to the final outcome of, of zero carbon.

John Farrell: You mentioned before in your campaign that there, you know, you had these sort of these different planks. One of the things you mentioned was beneficial electrification. I’m curious if you think there are some areas of innovation, whether it’s around technology that is used for generation, or smart technology for managing energy use, or in policies, you know, like around the structure of bills, you mentioned that the fixed fees and the declining block rate where things that have motivated you to run. Are there things like that, that you are interested in bringing to the table at OPPD?
Eric Williams: Yeah, absolutely. I think the innovation in our electric utilities, both public and private should be both in the technology area, but also in the policy area. So beneficial electrification, such as our transportation sector, getting electric vehicles on the road and electric trucking fleets and electric transit, that will all represent an increased demand on the, on the electric utilities. And I think that’s a big opportunity for us to recognize that we have new customers who want to reduce their own carbon emissions and you see those goals showing up at all kinds of corporations in, in all kinds of areas across the country. And so, uh, I think we need to be ready to receive that additional demand and make sure that it both helps them to reduce their carbon by electrifying, but, uh, that we also are prepared to deliver that electricity in a clean way. And when new demand comes online, we need to have policies that support that. We certainly want the cleaner outcome of electric transportation, for example, to be an economically competitive choice as well. And the cost of EVs is dropping very, very quickly. And the efficiency of an electric motor is so good that it is generally cheaper per mile to drive an electric vehicle. And so we need to make sure that we are prepared for when those other demands for electricity starts showing up from other sources, that we have policy in place and technology able to deliver on helping our community partners to achieve their own decarbonization outcomes. And so, yeah, um, the rate structure is related to electric vehicles. That’s a, that’s a critical area that we are currently investigating to make sure we have a policy that supports bringing in that new demand, electric water heaters in homes. And that’s going to be another area where there’s going to be a lot of opportunity.

I think that’s distributed generation, both of solar, for example, on your home, uh, or a battery for distributed storage. I think those are areas where policy needs to be developed to say, if you wish to participate in the clean energy transition through your own life, we have policy that supports you in doing that. And it can be both a clean energy answer, but also economically beneficial to you so that we aren’t discouraging people by saying, yeah, we really don’t want you to have a lot more electric consumption. We want you to choose to use electricity as a cleaner source of energy than what you might otherwise have been using.

John Farrell: You know, a lot of what you’ve described, whether it’s around electric vehicles or, you know, the rate structures, sounds like you’re talking about it sort of in the future. Are there policies already in place? Just thinking about like my utility, an investor-owned utility here in Minneapolis has an overnight charging rate for electric vehicles. For example, you know, it has a relatively lower fixed fee than an OPPD. Are those sort of, a lot of things that you feel like are on the table, things that you wanted to bring as you got on the board, or are there some of those things that are already in place?
Eric Williams: From a rate structure perspective, the first step there, it needs to be the technology. We don’t currently have meters that are two way communication or that would allow that extremely accurate measurement of instantaneous demand, for example, to help encourage off-peak charging of electric vehicles, for example. So we don’t currently have the technology in place to achieve that, but that is something that we are doing some serious work on understanding how do we get that technology implemented into our meters and across our system. Uh, and then the second piece is how do we back that with rate structure that also achieves those outcomes? So we have a couple of steps that are needed to be accomplished in order to get there. We don’t currently have those in place, but I do think that probably over the next 2, 3, 5 years, we will see some, some of those significant changes that are again, working technology and policy hand in hand to get to those outcomes. So there are some, now we have a net metering distributed generation policy. It is not a time of use type of pricing, and it doesn’t incorporate storage right now. But I do think that over the next couple of years, we are going to see a lot of updates to the existing policies to say, we recognize there are a whole host of other opportunities. Let’s make sure we encourage them that into our system as well.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I ask about why utilities are making the clean energy shift, the issue of coordination between public utilities, states, and cities, and where their public power provides an edge delivering what customers want. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules interview with Eric Williams, Vice Chair of the board of the Omaha Public Power District about public power in clean energy.

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John Farrell: For what it’s worth, we had an interesting challenge getting the utility here to do an EV charging rate in part, because initially they, they also don’t have the two way meter communication. And so they wanted to install a full second meter in order to allow the overnight charging. And they did manage to reach a compromise actually with the Public Utilities Commission here to use internet connected car charging infrastructure so that the customer doesn’t need a second meter. They would actually just read the data right off of the charger. And in some cases, actually, in a way I can imagine it would be useful for public power, the utility is going to own that car charger and service it and be responsible for it. And then also use it for the information and metrics, but it was a nice shortcut to the idea of doing like an advanced metering rollout, which can obviously take a long time and be fairly expensive too.
Eric Williams: And we have taken some steps in that direction. We have a partnership for a smart thermostat program, which allows people to get a discount when they purchase a smart thermostat. Preliminarily that was just Nest, but we expect two more products to be introduced this year. And so that is a partnership with a third party who helps us with some of the peak demand management, for example, through some of that smart communication technology. In the area of electric vehicles, we have an incentive for electric vehicle chargers. And that is specifically because we then asked for some access to data to see how does the electric vehicle charging impact our system, both at the small scale on the transmission side, but also at the large scale. And so we have taken some of those interim steps.

We are in the position where our meters will need to be upgraded in the next few years. And so I think it’s a, it’s a difficult time to say, we’ve got to wait for this other piece to be accomplished. And that can be a little bit anxious to say, you know, we know something big is going to happen when we do the, um, the next install of the, of the meters, because they’ve reached the end of their normal service life. That will be a time when a whole bunch of additional options become available. So you’re right. We have also taken some of those interim steps by using external communication networks, wireless, but I think the, the opportunity is right on the horizon. And that’s why I’m so excited to see that become available in a couple years.

John Farrell: You referenced the Yale climate communication studies, you know, as just one of the places where we’ve seen, uh, surveys showing broad support for clean energy among most Americans there, despite that we’ve seen for some utilities, even those that are publicly owned, like OPPD, have been slow to move toward things like wind and solar. You mentioned it’s, in the past decade already, there was a lot of purchasing of wind power by OPPD, but what do you think has been changing in recent years? In, you know, your election, I think is an indication of it and with your commitment to addressing climate change. What do you think has been changing in Nebraska or in other places around the country to shift utilities to be more open to renewable energy and to net zero carbon goals?
Eric Williams: I think specifically with OPPD, you asked about accelerating the timeline. Um, my first point would be that the board and the management over the last 10 years have done a great job of moving forward with wind energy, which is a resource we have in abundance. So we have taken some pretty good steps so far, which is how we’re at 40% already, which is higher than the national average. So we’re very proud of that. Secondly, there was an update to OPPD’s mission statement a few years ago, and a lot of public utilities in particular have a mission that revolves around affordable and reliable electricity. But most of them, including the American Public Power Association, have updated that mission to have a third and co-equal primary objective for the utilities and for the, uh, for the industry more broadly, which has to be affordable, reliable, and environmentally sensitive.

And so when that change happened, I think that represented a recognition by the board and by the management that the customer owners do want to see a recognition of this other value equally incorporated, as we make decisions about what type of generation are we going to have? What type of technology are we going to apply? And so making an update to the mission statement of the utility, I think was another big step forward. And that I think comes on the heels of an increasing and more broadly understood desire from the public to have more clean energy. Study after study has highlighted that people want clean energy. They like clean energy. They know that the investments in their communities are beneficial for their public schools. For example, that by situating wind farms in Nebraska and solar projects here, we are building local property tax base and creating a second revenue source for some of the rural communities who have really been hit hard by a, a large fluctuation in agricultural prices over the last couple of years. So, um, in Nebraska, that’s a big driver that people want to see that additional stable revenue from a locally produced clean energy project in their community.

And then I think the last point that just really can’t be ignored is the absolutely overwhelming economics of clean energy. At this point, that if you look back to 2010 and what the projections were for the future costs of wind and solar, the current prices absolutely blow those out of the water they blow the expectations out of the water. And so at this point, if you are a utility who has new demands coming on and you need to serve that new demand, like we have several data centers that have come to our community recently. So a very large increase in our load. The most cost-effective way for us to bring new generation online is to implement clean energy. And that’s evidenced through our specific project called power with purpose, which is a very large investment in utility-scale solar. We are working on the contracts now, between 400 to 600 megawatts of utility scale solar. That will be the first large scale solar at our utility and in Nebraska. And then that also was coupled with, um, some peaking gas turbines, which together allowed us to shift away from some of the older coal generation and take that offline. And so those two resources together allow us to meet the high new demand that we saw coming into our community. And the primary driver was because clean energy was the cheapest new generation that we, that we can have in our community. So all of those things together, I think demonstrate that clean energy really has arrived and is something that we need to recognize. And the places like the EIA and others who have consistently underestimated the cost-effectiveness of clean energy, I think they need to make sure they understand that this is the new baseline for the industry, and we need to be ready to see implementation because people want it. And it is the most cost effective.

John Farrell: Well, we talked before about how every Nebraska electric utility is publicly owned, but that doesn’t always mean that they’re perfectly coordinated with state or local governments. You mentioned, I think this is important for folks to understand, that like the Lincoln utility is owned by the city, but OPPD is a separate entity from the city of Omaha and surrounding communities. Do you see any gaps between the utility and the cities that it serves, or the state government, for example, around policy or approaches that have sometimes have to be addressed?
Eric Williams: In Nebraska, not only are we unique in being an all public power state, uh, we are unique in being a unicameral, meaning a one house legislative branch. So we have 49 senators. And both of those systems of governance were pioneered by very largely by the same person, George Norris. He was very interested in representing the farmers in Nebraska and making sure that resource management was in there in their best interests. And he specifically said that the development and conservation of these resources always to be under public control, public ownership, and public operation. And so between the public utility system and the unicameral legislature in Nebraska, we do have two non-partisan agencies working together to make sure that we are representing the best interests of the people in our state. And so I think that we have done a good job of partnering on, uh, on advancing policy in the state of Nebraska.

There’s currently a bill in the legislature that would set a clean energy standard across the state for the electric utilities. And that is based on the same goal that we have, which is the net zero carbon by 2050. And so I think the recognition that the utilities have demonstrated we can do this. We have policy ourselves to, to point in this direction, the legislature is now also saying, yes, we hear that. And we want to be a part of the solution and the clean energy future as well. So I think that the electric utilities, the public electric utilities, are working successfully with the legislature and also with our customers, the cities across the state of Nebraska to deliver on those, those steps towards the clean energy future that we all know.

John Farrell: Do you feel like a public utility like OPPD has an advantage over either a corporately owned or cooperatively owned utility in delivering our clean energy future? It sounds like it’s already, you know, the goal that you have adopted is catching on and that it’s both attracting other utilities in Nebraska and a legislature to take action. I’m curious though, if you, if, if it wasn’t public power in Nebraska, if there were other utility structures, do you think they would have a better or worse time at trying to meet some of those goals?
Eric Williams: I think the primary benefit of public power is that direct responsiveness and responsibility to the customer-owners by having a vote. It’s a six year term, but every six years, a director has to answer to the people that they represent. And if we’re not delivering on what the people are asking us to do, what our electric utility, then it’s time for a new leadership. And so I think that is the best mechanism for people to express their desires at our local electric utilities in Nebraska. But secondly, I think by being a public utility, we do not have that external economic force, which is the profit motivation. We do not have to pay shareholders and ensure that we have high dividends or that we are providing high economic returns to them. Our primary stakeholder responsibility is to the customer owners. And so I think that that is a mechanism, that is a system that delivers good results for people in our communities. And I think that Nebraska is really demonstrating that we can be innovative and we can lead the way in the clean energy transition as a public power district, because we are listening to what people are telling us that they want.
John Farrell: I noticed, and we kind of already touched on this, which was, I think really interesting that sometimes there can be a conflict between state legislatures setting energy policy and public utilities, who, as you’ve noted, really focused on the fact that they are democratically representative of their customers. Do you feel like there are times, and maybe this isn’t the case in Nebraska where it sounds like there’s some pretty good coordination, but times where state intervention, state policy really isn’t helpful? Times when it could be really helpful to have that state direction, as opposed to the local direction from customer owners?
Eric Williams: I think it would be helpful to have a state policy that matches what the utilities have said they want to deliver internally. And I mentioned the bill that’s currently in the legislature. I think that is very much in line with that, with that collaborative effort. And so I personally, again, views on my own. Um, I personally hope that that does advance and that we have a state position that is in line with the clean energy goals from, from the utilities, uh, that are currently going on. There is another level of local governance that I think is also relevant here, and that would be the counties. And each county is responsible for setting their own zoning and permitting regulations. And there have been several locations where very restrictive permitting has been implemented, which has hindered the ability of clean energy to be developed in Nebraska. And so I think that’s a collaboration between the utilities and the counties at highlighting the benefits of what a wind energy or a solar energy project can mean is really critical to our success. And I know that OPPD staff have been doing a great job of that. Recently, there has been, uh, some, some policy updates in Washington County, which is just north of Omaha, um, where they decided, yes, we want to, we want to allow solar energy development in our community because we see that as a big benefit, again, to the property tax base. And, uh, and the other outcomes that we’re, that we’re working to achieve. So not only at the state level, but I think at the county level, the coordination on getting everyone pointed in the same direction is really critical. Yeah.
John Farrell: Can you, I just wanna say, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. I just have one other question, which is what advice would you give for residents of other communities where their public utility maybe isn’t making some of the same steps forward, you know, OPPD, as you mentioned, 40% renewable is better than the average utility. What do they do in a, in a place where they’re in one of those below average places? How can they make a difference?
Eric Williams: If you have a public utility, remember that they are ultimately responsible to you as a customer owner. And so get involved and get engaged. And I was a community advocate for clean energy for several years. And then it seemed like, uh, like I said, the next best step was for me to run for the board of directors. But I think you’d be surprised that public utilities are much more interested and responsive to what people want if you just ask them. And so find out who your local representative is and find out how to engage them. And although we hear a lot about politics at the national level, or even at the state level, at the local level, elected officials at public utilities are very, very accessible and we want to hear from people. And so if you have a rural electric co-op, or if you are under another public electric utility somewhere across the country, I would encourage you to get engaged and find out who is the person who’s making those decisions and express your desires to them and let them know that you would like to see clean energy and action on climate change and strengthening of our local communities as we build clean energy and local power.
John Farrell: Eric, thanks again for taking the time to talk with us. I really appreciate the work that you’re doing in Omaha with OPPD and you taking the time to share with us about the progress that you’re making on clean energy.
Eric Williams: Great. Well, yeah, thanks, John. It was great to be here. I appreciate everything you are doing, and I’m looking forward to seeing more progress both here in Nebraska and across the country.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Eric Williams, Vice Chair of the board of the Omaha Public Power District, about the role of public power in the clean energy transition. On the show page, look for links to OPPD’s net zero carbon pledge, its recent board meeting presentation on the decarbonization plan, and more information about a large-scale solar project and several other policies that we discussed. On our website, you can also find our community power map showing which cities own their utility, as well as our interactive community power toolkit to provide stories, audio, and video examples of how communities can push their utility toward local clean power. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy. Editing provided by Audio Engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local, and thanks for listening.


People Hold the Power in Nebraska

Nebraska is unique because its three electric utilities (Omaha Public Power District, Nebraska Public Power District, and Lincoln Electric) are all publicly owned. Nebraskans are not only utility customers, they are utility owners. Since they have an ownership stake, they also have some decision-making power through local elections.

After a dozen years as a clean energy advocate, Eric Williams decided to run in one of these elections; there was an open seat on the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) board. Williams campaigned on fair rates, public engagement, and new energy market opportunities. He won his seat and joined the board of directors in January of 2019.

The primary benefit of public power is direct responsiveness and responsibility to the customer-owners by having a vote… if we’re not delivering on what the people are asking us to do, then it’s time for new leadership.

Unlike investor-owned utilities, public utilities do not provide dividends or returns to shareholders. Instead, says Williams, publicly owned utilities must answer to what customer-owners want. Lately, that has been clean energy.

Net Zero Carbon by 2050

Omaha Public Power District started purchasing wind power in the 2000s. Now, forty percent of the utility’s electricity comes from wind and other renewable sources.

The utility set an official ‘carbon intensity’ reduction goal in 2018. However, as Williams explains,  a reduction in carbon intensity could still mean an increase in net carbon emissions. For this reason, Williams and other new board members decided to update strategic directive number seven: the company’s directive on environmental stewardship. In 2019, the board voted to change its goal to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Staff are creating a plan to reach this goal, which Williams expects to be completed at the end of 2021.


Since Omaha Public Power District’s net zero target date is 2050, and the utility plans to add new gas generation in the meantime, OPPD gets a failing grade on the Sierra Club’s “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges” report. Report co-author John Romankiewicz is featured on episode 129 of Local Energy Rules.


After OPPD set its net zero target, Lincoln Electric established a similar goal: net zero carbon emissions by 2040.

Technology and Policy Innovation

Williams foresees a future of beneficial electrification: electric vehicles, truck fleets, and home heating. According to the National Renewable Energy Lab, electrifying transportation and building energy use could increase electricity consumption 38% by 2050. Williams hopes that OPPD can meet any additional demand without increasing carbon emissions.

We need to be ready to receive that additional demand and make sure that it both helps them to reduce their carbon by electrifying, but that we also are prepared to deliver that electricity in a clean way.

In keeping up with electrification, OPPD will have to keep up with technology. Smart meters, thermostats, and wifi-connected electric vehicle chargers are all features of a modern, efficient electric grid.

Policy can also support customers in making cleaner choices. If Nebraska’s renewable energy standard passes the unicameral legislature, state policy will be in line with the utility’s position. Williams makes the case for county zoning and permitting laws that allow clean energy development. At the utility level, innovative rate structures can support customers who help with demand response.

Public Opinion Paves the Way

In all, Williams emphasizes how the public is responsible for changes at OPPD. As more people came to value and demand clean energy, the utility updated its mission statement and adopted its net zero carbon goal.

Beyond public pressure, Williams says that the “overwhelming economics” of clean energy cannot be ignored. He has found that renewable energy sources are the best option for serving new electricity demand.

Study after study has highlighted that people want clean energy. They like clean energy. They know that the investments in their communities are beneficial for their public schools.


Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.


This is episode 132 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering for this episode is by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update.

Featured Photo Credit: iStock

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Maria McCoy

Maria McCoy is a research associate with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.