Wind, solar acquisitions make sense for Lincoln Electric System

Staring down a future of potential environmental regulations and uncertain production tax credits, Lincoln Electric System You are leaving (LES) in Lincoln, Nebraska, is surging forward on “greening up” its power portfolio.

Elkhorn Ridge is one of five wind facilities currently supplying green power to Lincoln Electric System. In 2015, LES will add another 173 MW from the Prairie Breeze II in Nebraska and Buckeye in Kansas. (Photo by Nebraska Public Power District)

Elkhorn Ridge is one of five wind facilities currently supplying green power to Lincoln Electric System. In 2015, LES will add another 173 MW from the Prairie Breeze II in Nebraska and Buckeye in Kansas. (Photo by Nebraska Public Power District)

The municipal utility closed 2014 with a power purchase agreement to add 173 megawatts (MW) of wind energy and 5 MW of solar energy to its power supply resource portfolio by 2016. The move will reduce coal resources from 43 percent of LES’s installed nameplate capacity to 34 percent.

This latest acquisition is not part of a predetermined goal, but simply a good business decision, observed LES Administrator and CEO Kevin Wailes. “When viewed as a package, our wind and solar contracts are expected to save LES customer-owners approximately $429 million over the next 25 years,” he pointed out when announcing the agreements.

LES Communications Manager Kelley Porter added, “Responding to customer input and being good environmental stewards is part of doing business as a public power utility.”

Wind brings development
The wind additions, spread across two contracts with developer Invenergy You are leaving, involve the 73-MW Prairie Breeze II Wind Energy Center in northeastern Nebraska and 100-MW Buckeye Wind Energy Center in north-central Kansas. The projects will bring LES’ total wind portfolio to 304 MW, and increase the utility’s renewable generation portfolio to the equivalent of 48 percent of LES’ retail energy.

Prairie Breeze II is an expansion of Invenergy’s first Nebraska wind farm, which began operation in May 2014. The developer expects to complete Prairie Breeze II by the end of 2015. The project will create an estimated 90 jobs during the construction phase, and is expected to require seven permanent full-time employees to operate and maintain the 41 turbines.

Let the sun shine
Cost savings from the wind agreements will help supplement customer participation in LES’s new SunShares community solar program. LES launched the program in partnership with its customers to bring a community solar project to the Lincoln area. The 5-MW solar array—the largest in the state—will provide the utility with valuable solar experience.

The solar contract was in response to an LES survey indicating customers were willing to support more local solar energy. About 44 residential customers take advantage of LES’s renewable generation program and net-metering policy, but the city has a lot of older neighborhoods with large trees, Porter noted. “The solar project offers an affordable alternative for customers who would like to be involved with solar but don’t have the ideal circumstances,” she said.

The enthusiastic response to the solar farm indicates that a good many LES customers fall in that category. The program launched on Aug. 1, 2014. “We held a press conference to announce it on Aug. 2, and 1,200 customers had signed up by the time we signed the agreement,” Porter recalled.

Marketing of the solar installation was not limited to the news conference. LES enlisted the same local environmental groups and citizens who had pushed for the project to speak to community groups. Promotion also included a two-month blitz of social media, radio interviews, posters, newspaper ads and bill stuffers.

Future builds on past
Now that LES has had a chance to gauge the real interest in the solar project, the promotion has entered its second phase. “The site is highly visible from Interstate 80, so the community can watch as the project is constructed and feel like a part of it,” Porter said.

The solar farm will significantly increase the amount of solar power in the municipal utility’s resource mix. In addition to the customer rooftop systems, LES recently added 50 kilowatts of solar energy through a rooftop solar array on one of its service buildings.

LES prides itself on a history of aggressively building its renewable energy portfolio, starting with two utility-owned and customer-financed wind turbines in 1998. The new solar program further diversifies an energy supply that includes 4.8 MW generated by the Bluff Road Landfill waste-to-energy facility, commissioned in 2013.

The new wind and solar contracts are only the latest example of the municipal utility’s move toward greater sustainability. In a changing industry, this openness to innovation has helped LES control costs, ensure reliable power delivery and keep rates affordable for its customer-owners. As Wailes explained, “We make decisions to best reflect the values of our community.”