Downtown Omaha, Nebraska. Credit: Pat Hawks / Flickr / Creative Commons

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Louis Lester is applying his knowledge of utility rates and fees to help nonprofits lower their energy bills. 

A retired utility engineer is using his expertise to help Nebraska charities shave their peak electricity use — and their monthly energy bills.

Louis Lester, who formerly managed distribution planning for the Omaha Public Power District, has been volunteering since January with a Nebraskans for Solar program aimed at helping nonprofits lower their energy bills.

Green Watts for Good had been focused on opportunities around solar panels, but Lester has expanded that scope to include energy management strategies to prevent energy-hogging appliances from all running at once.

That type of load shifting, such as making sure coolers kick on at staggered times, can have a big payoff thanks to the way some utilities structure their bills, with a customer’s peak energy use during a billing cycle determining a significant portion of what they pay.

“These nonprofits don’t know where to start. You look at your electric bill, and there are lots of numbers on there. What does that mean? You have to know what it means to know what [you] could do to change it,” Lester said. “That’s where we try to help them.”

No More Empty Pots, which provides job training, education, and support for entrepreneurs in Omaha’s food industry, pays Omaha Public Power District more than $500 a month in demand charges based on its peak load. Co-founder and CEO Nancy Williams initially sought help installing solar panels, but Lester encouraged her to prioritize other upgrades first. 

A team from Creighton University’s energy technology program did a comprehensive study of the charity’s energy use. The findings, Lester said, reveal a building “out of whack,” running heating, cooling and other systems at times when they are not needed. Now, the organization plans to hire a company to install a load-management system that will better synchronize its appliance use to bring down the demand charge.  

Green Watts for Good provided $13,000 to help the Heartland Hope Mission to install a 5-megawatt array atop its facility that provides food, clothing, personal items and help with finding employment. Lester now is analyzing the mission’s bills, seeking a way to eliminate the demand fee that costs about $500 per month.

Chelsea Salifou, the mission’s chief executive officer, told Nebraskans for Solar she is hopeful that the modifications to their energy consumption and supply “will enable us to put more of our resources towards providing food and other essential needs to working poor families in our community.”

Lester’s experience at the Omaha Public Power District and his understanding of the company’s rate structure has been a boon, said Helen Deffenbacher, a member of Nebraskans for Solar. Lester has demonstrated the money- and energy-saving value of carefully scheduling when equipment runs, “something we would not have thought of,” she said.

The economics of such investments relate to Lester’s previous job at the utility, which involved planning system upgrades to make sure it could meet anticipated power needs.

“The reason you have a demand charge is that peak [power use] is what drives utilities to build facilities,” Lester said. “If you lower the peak, you don’t need to build new power plants, substations and everything else.”

Lester and Nebraskans for Solar see great potential for reducing nonprofits’ energy bills, and at the same time cutting the utility’s peak demand, which has environmental benefits, too. Peak demand accounts for a disproportionate amount of emissions because it often requires utilities to fire up dirty and inefficient old power plants.

The goal is to work with as many nonprofits as they can in OPPD’s territory and possibly beyond to help them reduce peak use and also install solar where financially feasible.

The group is preparing a presentation based on Lester’s work that it plans to present in an upcoming virtual workshop.

Karen Uhlenhuth

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.