OPPD solar power

This site east of Fort Calhoun will become a community solar facility, set to go into operation in June 2019.

As Fort Calhoun’s reputation as the home of nuclear power in eastern Nebraska comes to an end, a deal has been struck that could soon make the city the home of Nebraska’s solar power.

Omaha Public Power District has worked with city officials to create plans for a 35-acre, 5-megawatt, community solar facility just east of the city limits. The ground is owned by the city and is currently leased for agricultural purposes.

The facility will be OPPD’s first community solar project.

Mary Fisher, vice president of Energy Production and Nuclear Decommissioning, said it’s something OPPD customers have been wanting for some time.

“Our customers have really been asking for a solar option,” she said. “And we have customers that, because of either the size of their home or because they live in apartments, the rooftop on their home does not provide the ability for them to participate in solar.”

This takes up a large share of households, as according to the National Renewable Energy Lab, only around 25 percent of homes in the country are suitable for installing solar panels.

Community solar projects, sometimes called gardens, work around that issue by allowing many different customers to take part in the benefits of one large solar facility.

Community solar facilities are built by a third-party operation and run by the utility company. NextEra Energy Resources, LLC, will build this facility. OPPD awarded a 20-year power purchase agreement to a Next Era subsidiary.

Once the facility is underway, individual consumers can then buy shares or a “subscription” to the facility. Shareholders would bear the extra cost for the facility, but would also reap the benefits.

Think of the energy grid like the Missouri River, which flows just a few miles east of the proposed solar garden.

The river is fed by many sources, some larger than others. Streams and small feeder creeks make their way into the Missouri River from different locations. Once they meet the river, all the water mixes in together before reaching its final destination. Power works in much the same way.

Energy produced at a solar garden is fed into the grid to join all the other power, created by both renewable and non-renewable sources, before reaching its final destination of customers’ homes.

Customers become energy producers when they invest in a solar garden. They produce energy not just for their own home, but for all homes serviced by the utility company. The benefits of being a part of this kind of facility come in the form of credits received on a customer’s monthly utility bill. Essentially, the utility company reimburses shareholders for producing energy that is fed into the company’s grid.

“So only those who participate in the program have the cost and the benefits,” said OPPD’s Director of Product Development and Marketing Heather Siebken.

Seeing benefits like these takes time though, and OPPD is treading lightly when it comes to speculation of credits, for fear of counting all their solar-powered eggs before they hatch.

“Most people go into solar thinking they’re immediately going to have a credit,” Siebken said. “That’s not the case right out of the gate because there’s a number of costs that go into building and connecting (a facility).”

The details of purchasing shares to the facility are still being worked out. Siebken said within the next few weeks OPPD would begin to nail down the specifics of their plan.

“How this program will work. How will customers will enroll, when they will enroll and what will be some of the rules of engagement,” she said.

She said they hope to put the final plan out to their customers by the beginning of 2019. The facility is scheduled to be operational June 30, 2019.

Fort Calhoun Mayor Mitch Robinson said the city is looking forward the project and to construction getting underway.

“Fort Calhoun is excited to be a part of the first OPPD community solar project,” he said via an OPPD press release. “We feel this is the start of a great partnership with OPPD and NextEra, to bring more green energy to the community and the surrounding area.”

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