350.org Addresses OPPD Board

On the Danger Coal-fired Energy Poses to the Midwest Climate

The Omaha Public Power District prides itself on serving more customers than any other power district in the state. Governed by a non-partisan, eight-member board of directors who are publicly elected to six-year terms, OPPD is required by law to deliver the most affordable and reliable electricity to the rate-payers in its 13-county service area.

Well over half (57 percent) of that electricity is currently generated from coal mined from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and transported by the Union Pacific Railroad to OPPD coal-fired plants in North Omaha and Nebraska City. Oil and natural gas (27 percent) and nuclear energy (15 percent) constitute the other two major power sources in OPPD’s generation portfolio. Only one percent of OPPD’s electricity is derived from renewable energy, though the board of directors has set a goal of producing ten percent of their energy from renewables by 2020.

This past January, at OPPD’s regular monthly meeting, representatives from 350.org—Nebraska and Nebraskans for Peace addressed the board on the climate threat posed by global warming and the need to end our public power system’s dangerous reliance on coal.

As meteorologist John Pollack (whose statement to the board is reproduced below) stated, a ten-percent renewable energy goal by 2020 is too little too late. If we’re to avert climate chaos—and the end of civilization as we know it—utilities like OPPD need to ramp up their energy efficiency programs to reduce waste and demand, boost their renewable energy target to 40 percent by 2020, and start leaving that Powder River Basin coal where it belongs—in the ground.

I’m here today because I’m a meteorologist concerned about climate change. I’ve been following the issue for 40 years, including my recent 30-year career with the National Weather Service in Omaha. I’m convinced that the need to reduce carbon emissions from OPPD’s coal-fired plants is urgent, and the consequences of inaction are rising for our service area.

Burning fossil fuels, especially coal, is one of the main causes of global warming. Burning coal puts twice as much CO2 into the air than natural gas. To stop global warming, the experts tell us that we need to change from burning coal and generate at least 40 percent of our electricity from renewable sources by 2020. OPPD’s goal is only ten percent by that year.

I’m well aware of the irony of addressing the ‘global warming’ issue on a cold winter day. Even though severe winter weather has been in the headlines lately in both the U.S. and Europe, there is more to this than appears to the casual observer. The basic cause of this weather is a pattern that meteorologists call “high latitude blocking.” In this pattern, unusual high pressure aloft over the Arctic forces the jet stream further south. This results in intense storms. It also pushes arctic air further south than usual into the continental U.S., causing cold outbreaks and huge snowstorms.

The current pattern is amazingly intense to an experienced meteorologist. In brief, there is an area of high pressure and warm air aloft in northwest Alaska. This is the monster block in this blocking pattern. The intensity of this high would be unusual in midsummer for this region and is extraordinary now, in the winter. To put a number on it, this is a four-sigma departure from normal for western Alaska, expected to occur once every few hundred years.

The trouble is, climate change caused by burning fossil fuels, has shifted what used to be ‘normal.’ We’re seeing these four-sigma events with increasing frequency. There was an October storm that produced the lowest pressure ever recorded in the interior U.S. by a wide margin. There have been two ‘500-year’ rainfall events in Iowa in three years.

The OPPD service area has been lucky so far. However, we can expect larger ice storms to cause more frequent and severe damage in this area. A wind or ice storm driven by a four-sigma weather anomaly would be a major disaster. So would a summer heat wave.

This is something we all have a direct stake in. The climate is shifting as carbon dioxide levels rise. It is time to protect ourselves as best we can by advance planning, and by reducing carbon emissions as rapidly as possible. I urge you to set a goal of 40 percent renewable energy by 2020.

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