Downtown Omaha, Nebraska, rises over the banks of the Missouri River. The Omaha Public Power District board last month unanimously approved a goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. To achieve it, utility leaders say, "We need technology changes." Credit: Tony Webster / Flickr / Creative Commons

New board members helped push the Omaha Public Power District to commit to net-zero emissions by 2050.

The new clean-energy majority running Omaha, Nebraska’s electric utility knows it wants to steer the company toward a mostly carbon-free future. What’s less clear is how the company will get there.

The board of directors of the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) voted unanimously last month to achieve “net-zero carbon” emissions by 2050. The company, like many others that have set similar goals, is placing its bets on technological advances yet to come.

“I don’t believe we have the technology to be completely off fossil fuels today,” said Mary Fisher, the utility’s vice president for energy production and nuclear decommissioning. “I believe it will come, but I don’t know when it will come. You see that in announcements coming out from a lot of utilities: that we need technology changes.”

OPPD is not alone in that assessment. As cities, states and utilities establish clean energy targets, they are setting deadlines that in a few cases are 10 years off, and more frequently are 20 or 30 years in the future, according to Amanda Levin, an energy analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. She said the distant future deadlines are almost always for one reason: “They want those costs to fall.”

“You could get to 100% clean energy with a combination of nuclear, wind and solar and battery storage — all technologies that exist today,” she said. “The question is, ‘What is the cost?’”

Omaha’s recent adoption of a net-zero carbon standard was a revision — even a repudiation — of a standard passed a year ago by a very different board of directors. By a vote of 6 to 2, that board set a goal of reducing the utility’s carbon intensity by 20% from 2010 levels by 2030 — a metric that doesn’t necessarily indicate whether emissions are reduced overall.

“Carbon intensity can mean we are doing better, doing worse, or exactly the same,” said Rick Yoder, who was elected to the OPPD board in 2017 on a clean-energy platform.

Several candidates last fall campaigned for reduced carbon emissions and three of them secured seats on the board. Clean energy now has a majority on the eight-member board. Last month’s revised carbon goal is one of the first cleaner and greener stamps they’ve put on company operations.

With new board members, Omaha utility making moves toward low-carbon future »

Although the board doesn’t typically revise its long-term goals in consecutive years, it decided to revisit its environmental stewardship goal this year because “the three new members were keenly interested in upping the game,” Yoder said.

So were many of the utility’s customers. When the topic of reduced carbon emissions came up, “our little boardroom was packed,” Yoder said. “There was a lot of interest — more than for any other issue we’ve had.”

Some customers pressed for an earlier deadline, such as 2040 instead of 2050. Senior management discouraged that, at least in part because the utility has a contract through 2049 to sell 345 megawatts of power from its coal-fired Nebraska City plant to several other utilities.

‘We expect continual improvement and change’

Nevertheless, the new board is revolutionizing some aspects of the culture at the Omaha utility. A year ago, when clean-energy supporters comprised a minority of the board — two out of eight — discussion about lowering the utility’s carbon footprint didn’t get far. Fisher said at the time that she was “hesitant to put something out there that we don’t have an answer for how we get there.”

But last month, the board did precisely that.

The language of the new goal requires the company to conduct all operations in a way that “strives for the goal of net zero carbon production by 2050.” It would include not just the technologies used to generate power, but the company’s own energy use in heating and cooling buildings, for example, and operating a fleet of vehicles.

The word “net” was an important addition, and one pushed by Fisher, a member of the senior management team. She is doubtful that changes in generation alone will get the company to its goal. “Net” will allow it to produce some carbon dioxide provided it offsets it, perhaps through carbon capture or tree planting, for example.

Although the term “strives” appears to give the utility some room to maneuver, Russ Baker, the company’s director of environmental and regulatory affairs, said, “For us, it carries all the weight of a law or regulation. There was a clear expectation of continuous improvement and an accounting system to be set up to show where we are across different carbon-emitting process across OPPD. We need to prove to them every year that we are making progress to meet that goal.”

Some monitoring has been built in. The utility staff is to report annually to the full board on its success in moving toward the clean energy goal, and the board committee that pushed the new wording forward — all of whose members are strong backers of clean energy — will meet monthly with staff on its efforts to move forward.

Yoder said the systems committee — which is populated by clean-energy backers and has a large role in generation decisions — “made a promise to ourselves that we will flesh out what our annual reports will look like and what we expect management to report to the board. That will help reinforce the notion that we expect continual improvement and change.”

Mapping a path to net-zero

Some of that movement is underway. By 2023, the utility intends to close three gas-fired units at its North Omaha Station and to convert the other two units, now using coal, to natural gas. OPPD’s board committed recently to building a 400- to 600-megawatt solar array, and it says it will need additional natural gas — on top of the conversion of its existing coal plant — to meet the capacity requirements associated with that.

The utility’s major coal-fired plant, located at Nebraska City, has a capacity of 1,309 MW. One of the units began service in 2009, the other about 30 years before that. Utility management doesn’t foresee changes there in the near future.

The district is launching what it calls a “decarbonization study” to help management map out a route to 2050, Fisher said. It will determine how much energy is used in each facet of the company’s operation and propose ways to make reductions. In addition to the primary challenge — finding ways to transition generation from fossil fuels to renewables — it will survey customers about how the utility might help them to cut their energy use, and will study ways to reduce its own consumption. In addition, the study is looking at ways to make the larger community more efficient through the conversion of more street lights to LEDs, for example.

The task is daunting, Baker said. Although he’s feeling the weight of the new board’s vision, he said it can’t be more difficult than the task that confronted NASA administrator James Webb after former President John F. Kennedy announced his assignment on May 25, 1961: getting to the moon by the end of the decade.

“I’m sure [Webb] would have said, ‘I don’t have a clue.’”

The space administration met the challenge, and Baker said he believes the Omaha utility will as well.

Karen spent most of her career reporting for the Kansas City Star, focusing at various times on local and regional news, and features. More recently, she was employed as a researcher and writer for a bioethics center at a children’s hospital in Kansas City. Karen covers Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota.