Company exploring continued solar options

A push by the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD) for community solar energy is centered near Fort Calhoun and the solar array site being constructed east of the city might provide financial savings for customers who invest in the energy company's solar program.

OPPD began constructing a 35-acre solar array near Fort Calhoun earlier this spring. The array is a part of a goal by OPPD to have 50 percent of retail energy sales come from renewable energy sources, including through wind, hydro and landfill gas. It will be owned and operated by NextEra Energy and will produce 5 megawatts of energy, all of which could be purchased as shares by OPPD's residential customers starting March 19.

Within the first 49 days, all 8,403 shares were purchased by residential customers, including 266 shares by 28 Washington County customers. The swift sell-out of the community solar program shares surprised the company, OPPD Product Specialist Tricia McKnight said.

"This was kind of a test for us to see what kind of demand is out there. I think pretty much the entire company was surprised in what our customers were looking for with renewable energy," said McKnight, who is leading the solar program.

Residential customers could enroll in the solar program by buying shares at 79 cents per share a month and paying a one-time, refundable deposit of $100. One share equals 100 kilowatt hours of energy. Those who purchased shares have the possibility to see a financial credit return on their bills in the future, but, McKnight said, those credits aren't always guaranteed due to the maverick nature of energy.

"Any energy that is produced whether it's coal energy, solar energy or wind energy, once it's produced it goes onto our system," she said. "The way I like to look at it, the energy is produced and it all goes to this one common pool, it all goes to this big lake. That lake actually disperses the energy to all of the customers in our territory. We can't control where the energy actually goes, but we can say that the customers that are subscribing, theoretically are utilizing the solar energy."

A community solar program differs from an individual purchasing their own rooftop solar panels. People who put solar panels on their rooftops are likely to be homeowners and pay all the upfront cost involved with buying and installing the panels to see financial savings over an extended period of time. Community solar, McKnight said, allows customers to subsidize their bill by buying into a solar array that OPPD pays to construct and then produces.

"This product is available to all customers whether they are in an apartment or a homeowner," she said. "They're purchasing a piece of our solar energy that we'll be producing."

Though all the current shares for the 35-acre solar array are sold, residential customers can still join a wait list for more shares if they become available through current shareholders opting out, or if OPPD expands its solar program.

McKnight said OPPD is evaluating what solar moves to make going forward, using the wait list to keep track of demand. She said it's a possibility the company may continue to work with the City of Fort Calhoun to expand the current array. The array takes up 35 acres of an over 70-acre lot the city owns.

"There is another 35 acres available on that same property, so expansion is not out of the question," McKnight said.

The city is currently leasing the other 35 acres to a private farmer. Mayor Mitch Robinson said the city leases the agricultural portion year to year.

"We received a request to extend it to a five year lease, but we did not approve it," he said. "The reason I was against a five-year lease was to keep open the option for the expansion of the solar field if it was needed."

A wait list to purchase solar shares could be open by late June for commercial and industrial business customers of OPPD, which the company will also use to gauge demand for future solar plans.

"We're very excited at the demand we ended up having," McKnight said. "This is our first solar project, so we were kind of unsure of what our customers were going to do and what kind of demand we had out there. For it to sell out in 49 days, definitely shows it was s successful program and it is a product that our customers are in demand of."

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