KEARNEY — Melissa Freelend wants Nebraskans to have more clean, renewable energy, and she’s working toward that goal as a member of the board of directors at Nebraska Public Power District.
Elected in 2016, Freelend, 32, is the NPPD Board’s youngest member. She’s a Grand Island native and is employed in media and broadcasting. Her District 3 encompasses Buffalo and Hall counties.
Monday evening at the monthly meeting of the Buffalo County Democrats, Freelend said her goal of more clean energy isn’t in sync with all of her fellow NPPD board members, but she’s encouraged when Nebraskans say they share her view of the state’s energy future.
“It really emboldens me to see this turnout,” Freelend said to the crowd of 25 people at the Kearney Public Library. They asked her questions about NPPD’s direction and how individual customers can implement renewable energy in their homes and businesses.
According to NPPD’s website, coal-fired generating plants currently produce 27.3 percent of NPPD’s electricity. The largest source is nuclear at 48.2 percent followed by hydro at 8.4 percent, and wind at 8.3 percent.
Other sources include purchased power at 5.5 percent; gas/oil at 2 percent, and electricity generated by customers at about 0.4 percent.
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In recent years, NPPD has invested millions of dollars to bring its large coal-fired Gerald Gentleman Station generating plant at Sutherland into compliance with federal clean air standards. NPPD also has been purchasing more wind- and solar-generated power, but some critics say Nebraska’s largest electrical supplier has been slow to phase out coal and switch to clean energy for generating electricity.
Freelend said NPPD’s operating philosophy revolves around reliability and low cost, but interest and momentum in carbon-free energy is growing as wind turbines and solar farms crop up around Nebraska.
She said Norfolk has declared it intends to become 100 percent renewable and that the community is partnering with NPPD in an experiment with large-scale batteries to store wind and solar energy.
“With battery storage, the technology is getting more viable,” she said about the limitations of wind and solar energy. Today, those sources create power only when turbine blades are turning or panels are absorbing sunlight.
Freelend also mentioned the 55-acre SoCore solar farm at Kearney. The public can purchase shares of the solar power, but not all of the solar farm’s capacity has been purchased, she said. Built for $11 million, the solar farm produces the equivalent of 5 percent of Kearney’s energy demand.
Although the Kearney project’s capacity isn’t sold out, Freelend said some smaller solar farms have sold all of their capacity, and that reinforces her contention that the public wants more renewable energy.
“When community solar shares sell out, it sends a huge message to the people on the NPPD Board who don’t think like I do,” she said.
Several audience members told Freelend they purchased shares in Kearney’s SoCore solar farm or had small turbines or solar panels at their houses.
Energy from the SoCore solar farm is slightly more expensive today, but the rate is locked in for 20 years. It’s anticipated that after several years the solar power will be less expensive than regular retail rates.
Freelend said the NPPD Board is drafting new policies to lead the power district into the future and that she is leading a panel to boost the emphasis on affordable, reliable, renewable energy.