OPPD will add even more wind power to serve Facebook data center

4/4/2017

Omaha World-Herald - Social media giant Facebook is helping to boost the share of electricity from wind within the Omaha Public Power District.

OPPD, which already doubled its wind-generating capacity in January of this year, will add even more wind to meet Facebook’s stated intention of powering its planned Sarpy County data center with 100 percent renewable energy.

The OPPD board in January approved a new rate structure that allows a large electricity user — in this case, Facebook — to fulfill its energy demand completely with renewable generation. Before, OPPD customers got some of their power from renewables, but not all.

OPPD President and Chief Executive Tim Burke said he and the utility’s then-new head of economic development met with Facebook officials at the company’s Menlo Park, California, headquarters in 2013 to start talking about how to land large, environmentally minded electric customers in Omaha.

By comparison, a Facebook data center in Altoona, Iowa, used 174,000 megawatt-hours of electricity in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. That’s equivalent to about 15,700 OPPD households, or more than twice as many households as are in Papillion, according to census data.

Even though Facebook’s Sarpy County project is said to be among the most energy-efficient data centers in the world, OPPD’s Burke said it will still be among OPPD’s largest 25 customers.

In January, OPPD boosted its share of wind by 400 megawatts to more than 800 megawatts when it added the Grande Prairie wind farm in Holt County. That project is the largest wind farm in Nebraska.

Because of the Facebook project and the recent closure of its nuclear plant, OPPD plans to recommend to its board that it add even more wind energy — up to 450 megawatts. Burke said he expects a decision on the additional wind power in May or June.

The winning bid will partially fill what OPPD lost when it closed Fort Calhoun in October. Before then, the utility was generating far more electricity than it needed to serve customers, so it only will replace about 40 percent of Calhoun’s output with wind energy.

They met with other companies, too, and since the new rate was approved in January, other companies have taken notice.

“We have several customers right now that are putting together potential expansion projects and will utilize that (new) rate to grow,” Burke said.

Brett Illers, senior program manager for sustainability at Yahoo, on Tuesday held up the new rate as evidence of a “revolution” in sustainable energy markets.

“Large customers must work with utilities on renewable energy, and we’re pleased to see OPPD shares this vision,” Illers said. “Yahoo has advocated for these types of solutions, and we look forward to adopting this rate to help bring our growing Nebraska facilities to complete renewable energy consumption.”

The new rate does not come at the expense of existing customers, Burke noted. That conclusion is supported by a review of the January proposal by the Brattle Group, an independent consultant headquartered near Boston, that found the rate is “fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory” across OPPD’s customer base.

“We were very clear that we didn’t want this project to drive rate increases for other customers, and (Facebook) understood that and didn’t want to be part of that, either,” Burke said.

Landing a large industrial user like a data center could help spread out fixed costs like power lines in OPPD’s service territory. The utility last summer moved its 20-year demand outlook into negative territory, meaning that it expects customers will use less energy in coming years than they do now.

That’s thanks largely to more efficient appliances like dishwashers, televisions and washing machines.

But unlike in households, where electricity usage fluctuates up and down depending on the time of day and weather, a data center uses a constant volume of energy.

The average OPPD residential customer used 11,084 kilowatt-hours of electricity in 2016.

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