Community Engagement

In the capital of the public power state

In early November 2015, I was back in Nebraska — the only state in the Union that is all public power and cooperative electric utilities. I went to visit Lincoln Electric System. LES had invited me earlier in the year to speak at its 2015 Energy Summit, and I was happy to come. LES invites its large commercial and industrial customers, as well as legislators and staff, to come to this summit each year. They have breakfast with LES staff and hear about current issues in our industry and the latest from LES on new projects, programs and services, and rate developments.

I spoke about some of the federal issues facing members of the American Public Power Association — the EPA's Clean Power Plan, possible energy legislation, and cyber/physical security.

Then we heard from Kevin Wailes, LES' Administrator and CEO. His presentation reminded me why LES is such an exemplary member — LES has a very diversified power supply portfolio (1/3 coal, 1/3 natural gas, 1/3 renewables), a strong reliability record, and low rates. To maintain its current high level of service, LES is planning to build a second service center — to be named the LES Operations Center — in the Southeast portion of its service area, to serve this rapidly growing part of the city. This facility will ensure continuity of operations if there is a physical event impacting LES' current operations center, and reduce response and windshield times for its work crews.

The summit was held at the Nebraska Innovation Campus, which is part of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. It is located at the old State Fairgrounds. The university took pains to incorporate into the campus both the old fair exhibition buildings and the latest in energy efficiency and modern building design. The summit was held the NIC Innovations Commons, which is the old 4-H exhibition hall. It is a smart mixture of old and new, and it helps explain Lincoln's growing reputation as the "Silicon Prairie!"

After the summit, I toured LES' Walt Canney Service Center, named after one of LES's veteran administrators, and a tall figure in public power. Not only was he a pillar of LES, but also he was also very active in APPA. He served on the APPA Board of Directors from 1979 to 1990 and was elected Chair of APPA in June 1988. I got to see the various aspects of LES' centralized operations, from the vehicle maintenance facility to the transmission and distribution control room, the energy marketing center, and even LES' own "Macy's" — the in-house store for lineworker apparel and accessories.

While I was there, I met with about 60 LES employees, talking to them about the six external initiatives in APPA's 2016-2018 Strategic Plan, and taking their questions. They were an engaged group, coming from many different parts of LES. The session was taped so that other LES employees who could not attend could view it online.

I then had lunch with a group of LES management and staff to talk about LES thoughts about the Clean Power Plan, and possible tools the state can use to build a compliance strategy. The fact that Nebraska is an all-public power state means that it can collaborate on these issues more easily than many other states, but the heavy lift that EPA has assigned to the state will require hard work on everyone's part. (Little known fact: Nebraska is also the only state with a unicameral or one house legislature — which is reflected in the unique architecture of its Capitol. You can see photos here)

After lunch, I got to tour two energy facilities: the Terry Bundy Generating Station outside of town and the District Energy Corporation in the West Haymarket district between the historic downtown and the Burlington Northern railroad yards.

The Terry Bundy station is a very interesting place if you are a power geek. It is a natural gas-fired generating facility with multiple turbines, which combined equal 177 MW of capacity. But it also has on site three Caterpillar engines that produce electricity from methane gas piped from the next-door municipal landfill, and it takes wastewater from the nearby wastewater facility, processes it to demineralized standards, uses it in the generating facility, and then returns it to the wastewater facility. And all this is next-door to two LES Vestas wind turbines!

LES is a member of the Southwest Power Pool. When SPP started its integrated market, LES quit dispatching its own generation, and now offers its generation each day into the SPP market. While LES has found participation in the SPP day-ahead market to have many benefits, one thing that has substantially changed is how the Terry Bundy station is dispatched and operated. It often operates for just a few hours a day, ramping up and down to support variable wind generation. It makes a substantial portion of its revenue from SPP's ancillary services market, providing regulation and spinning reserve services, rather than primarily selling energy. What remains to be seen is how this change will impact the ongoing operations and maintenance of the facility over time.

Discussing this with the operations team at Terry Bundy really brought home to me how policymakers and regulators back inside the D.C. Beltway just assume that these changes can magically happen, and often do not consider the very practical operational issues that can arise.

I also got to hear about the joint training program that LES has with the local Southeast Community College to train generation plant operators. This 18-month program includes both classroom and hands-on training at the Terry Bundy Generating Station. LES finds that the operators it has hired out of this program are more likely to stay with LES than operators trained out of state, because they call the Lincoln area home, and want to stay there. I got to meet some graduates of the program at the plant, including Terry Bundy's first female plant operations employee, Kayla Kollars. It is great to see young women making inroads into traditionally male utility job classifications.

I finished the day with a visit to the DEC facility in the West Haymarket — a hot new neighborhood adjacent to downtown Lincoln. This facility provides very efficient district steam heating and cooling for government buildings within the designated DEC district. The building itself blends in with the area, being attached to a parking garage (complete with LES/Chargepoint EV charging stations). When the immediate area is fully built out (and the buildings are going up fast) the DEC facility will be sandwiched into the middle of the block and will likely go unnoticed by visitors. Developers in the Haymarket area are restoring the old brick buildings into retail and restaurants, taking advantage of a new nearby arena. Condos are also being constructed, so the area will be multi-use.

Clearly, lots of good things are going on in Lincoln and LES is helping to facilitate these changes. Having a strong public power utility as a local partner in economic development and community improvement projects can make a real difference. So hats off to Lincoln and LES!"