When the customers of Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) talk, the utility listens. More specifically, before making a big move regarding its future, the utility first sought out the opinion of its customer-owners.
OPPD customer-owners attended public meetings to offer comment on the future makeup of their utility’s resource portfolio. OPPD hosted 10 meetings as part of a public process to get input from their ratepayers before making a final decision. (Photo by Omaha Public Power District)
The OPPD board of directors recently approved a proactive plan that dramatically reshapes the utility’s future generation portfolio by retiring three of the oldest coal-fired generating units at its North Omaha Station. The plan is intended to position the utility for compliance with future government regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while preserving its ability to meet customer demand for electricity.
The decision was preceded by an extensive public outreach process, the first of its kind—but not the last—for OPPD. “Our customers have let us know that they want more of a voice in major decisions, especially those involving our coal plants and pending environmental legislation,” explained Senior Media Specialist Mike Jones. “We will definitely be using the process again to make decisions on issues like renewable energy and rate changes.”
Retiring the three units at North Omaha by 2016 will significantly reduce emissions and bring OPPD into compliance with the Environmental Protection Agency’s Mercury and Air Toxics Standard. The two remaining generating units will remain on coal but be retrofitted with additional emission controls, and, by 2023, be converted to natural gas. Under the plan, Nebraska City Station Unit 1 will also be retrofitted in 2016.
The plan also calls for the district to reduce its load by 300 megawatts (MW) through customer participation in demand side management (DSM), a strategy that has strong customer support. “The level of interest in DSM and energy-efficiency programs may have been the biggest surprise of the stakeholder process,” Jones observed. “Our customers said they like the programs OPPD already offers but they want to see us do more, including offering more incentives and providing more education on how customers can save energy.”
Customers made it clear during the stakeholder process that they understood changes to comply with new environmental regulations could lead to higher energy costs. The approved measure is projected to cost customers somewhere between zero to two percent over a 20-year period, well within ratepayers’ comfort zone. OPPD President Gary Gates expressed confidence that the plan carries forward the district’s commitment to affordability, reliability and environmental sensitivity. “It also continues to provide a diverse generation portfolio, which customers also said was important to them,” he said.
Building the perfect process
Resource planning is hard enough, and actively engaging consumers in the process adds a layer of difficulty. It took time and extensive planning for OPPD to design a public outreach process that gave customers the voice they wanted in the board’s ultimate decision.
In late 2012, the board tasked the corporate communications and marketing department, led by Division Manager Lisa Olson, with organizing the stakeholder process. “It was an organization-wide effort because the decisions being made were going to have such a wide-reaching effect, on OPPD staff as well as its customers,” said Jones.
Starting with community and advocacy groups that had already approached OPPD about wanting a public process, the outreach team invited the public to a series of 10 open house meetings. Announcements appeared in local newspapers, the OPPD newsletter, on the website and in the district’s social media forums. OPPD sent news releases to local media and made representatives available for interviews. The outreach team also attended community events where they could talk to customers who might not be aware of the upcoming meetings. “If you can think of an avenue of communication, we used it,” Jones recalled. “The most important piece of advice for utilities launching their own public process is to keep the message in front of your customers. Do whatever it takes to encourage their participation.”
The meetings began in February and were held at venues throughout OPPD territory. Representatives also attended community meetings and meetings of nonprofit organizations. Turnouts ran the gamut from a dozen or so attendees to as many as 50, as did the level of engagement. Groups like the Sierra Club and Nebraska Wildlife had definite opinions they wanted to share, while many individual customers just wanted to learn more. “There were people who just wanted to let us know that they didn’t want a lot of change,” Jones noted. “It was critical to the process that everyone who participated felt like we were listening.”
OPPD streamed four of its public meetings live on its website so customers who could not make it to the meetings had the opportunity to submit questions to the utility executives. (Photo courtesy of Omaha Public Power District)
Customers who were unable to make it to one of the meetings could share their input on a website, OPPDListens.com. Launched in March, OPPDListens functioned as an online meeting, walking visitors through the issues and options and letting them leave their own comments. About 500 to 600 visitors left comments on the website.
In addition to having an online forum, OPPD customers were randomly selected for a series of focus groups set up by the consulting firm Market Strategies International . Participants from the residential and commercial sectors weighed in on the implications of future generation options and portfolios.
Working with engineering consultant Black & Veatch , OPPD compiled the results from the meetings, the website and the focus groups into a preliminary report it presented to customers in April. The goal, according to Jones, was to make the process as transparent as possible. “We wanted customers to see what their neighbors were saying and to understand that, whatever the final decision was, they were driving it,” he said.
The outreach team culled the top five options customers preferred and presented a report to the board. It was up to OPPD management to reconcile the board’s concerns with the customer preferences, and release the final recommendations in May.
At the end of the careful process, OPPD had a plan that gives the utility the flexibility to balance customers’ concern for the environment with their need for reliable, affordable power. The utility also had another tool for getting customer buy-in on major decisions in the future. “All in all, we are pretty happy with the stakeholder process,” Jones acknowledged. “We may do some fine tuning, but it worked as we hoped.”
The key to that success, he added, is sincerity. “When you give people the chance to say what is on their minds, you have to take it seriously,” Jones said. “If they think it is just for show, you will lose their trust.”
But then, Omaha Public Power District has already established its reputation for being in touch with its customer-owners, and it showed in the input received during the public process. “It turns out that the board and the customers are pretty much on the same page about the direction OPPD needs to go,” observed Jones. “That is gratifying to know. You can be going down a path that you think is what your customers want and find out that you are out of touch with them. That was not the case this time.”
For more information about the implementation and the value of a formal public outreach process, see Nebraska Public Power District Customer Meeting on Energy Alternatives: Summary of Results . Western worked with Nebraska Public Power district to produce this report.