As officials from the city of Hastings have discussed a community solar project to diversify the local energy generation profile, one of the considerations most often talked about is how renewables may enhance economic development prospects.
That has certainly been the case in Omaha.
Speaking in a telephone interview along with Tim O’Brien, director of economic development and external relations with the Omaha Public Power District, Dave Rippe, director of the Nebraska Department of Economic Development and former executive director of the Hastings Economic Development Corp., said while a renewable energy project within a community may not clinch a development deal for a business in that community, it has become a qualifier.
“While a company might be out looking for a railroad access or highway access or certain type of degreed individuals like engineers or whatever it might be on the human capital side, we’ve also seen renewable energy come into play as one of those initial qualifiers for consideration,” Rippe said.
Realizing the importance of renewable energy, OPPD has continued to increase the amount of renewables in its energy mix.
Of OPPD’s total retail sales mix in 2017, 33.5 percent was renewables, 65.3 percent was coal and 1.2 percent was oil or natural gas.
OPPD is moving toward 40 percent renewables once its Sholes Wind Energy Center goes online in 2019.
That commitment to renewable energy was a major factor in Facebook and Yahoo each recently deciding to construct data centers in the Omaha area.
O’Brien came to OPPD nearly six years ago.
“Even since then I’ve seen big changes on what companies are seeking,” he said. “Generally, the big things are, I call them the three R’s — rates, reliability and relationships — to get companies to look at the state. That serves us really well with the public power structures.”
Renewable energy has a couple of attributes when to comes to business recruitment and development, O’Brien said.
“On the renewable front, some would say if it’s holding rates stable or creating stability long term that’s great for them,” he said. “Others would say it really depends on the business model and that’s what so difficult. You can’t paint with a broad brush to say, ‘Yeah, if we have renewables we’re going to get new businesses.’ Unfortunately it’s not that direct because it depends on what the company’s making and doing.”
In the case of Facebook, the social media giant is a large consumer of energy with a corporate goals to be sustainable and renewable.
“So they really put in a corporate directive to have 100 percent renewable over a period of time,” O’Brien said. “For their new site locations they want to start at 100 percent, and some of their other locations they’re working to get to 100 percent. So, in the Facebook case it was a requirement for them to locate their facility in our area, so we worked to partner together to do that. I’ve got other companies that say, ‘You know what? OPPD is making decisions when it makes sense, when the value’s there, for some of these renewable resources, and you’re keeping rates and reliability stable.’ It depends on industry.”
The RE 100 list, which includes big corporation that have a commitment to using 100 percent renewable energy, has become a resource for OPPD.
“If I’m looking at companies that are interested in the area, I look at that RE 100 list and see if they’re on it and if they are I know one of their questions is going to be about renewable energy to meet that goal,” O’Brien said.
O’Brien, Rippe and Gov. Pete Ricketts were in the San Francisco area to meet with a prospective company.
“The company’s comment to us was ‘Now that we’ve attained supplying ourselves with 100 percent renewable power do you think we’ll ever locate where we can’t get 100 percent renewable power? Do you think we’ll ever step back from that?’ Obviously the answer is no,” Rippe said. “You’ve seen a number of these companies that have made renewables a strong portfolio goal and that’s how they’re making decisions now.”
OPPD is working on a 5 megawatt community solar project to be constructed in the spring for residential or small commercial customers that would have interest in acquiring 100 percent renewables.
“That project is happening,” O’Brien said. “We’re just working on getting subscribers right now. It’s been pretty well received so far.”