Power of Change: Energy Companies Prioritize Innovation and Regulation

Innovation and regulation are the watchwords for Midlands utilities and energy companies. Aging infrastructure, ever-changing regulation and the public’s increasing demand for alternative and sustainable energy sources have provided plenty to keep such organizations busy. 

Foremost among these priorities is the ongoing matter of infrastructure, which in many communities across America includes the hazard of outdated lead pipes. The Metropolitan Utilities District is tasked with ensuring Omaha’s water quality remains high.

“The most common sources of lead in drinking water are customer-owned lead service line pipes and older brass or bronze faucets and fixtures,” said Mike Koenig, MUD’s vice president of water operations. “The most recent round of lead and copper testing was completed in fall of 2022. That testing indicated 90% of samples were 7.59 parts per billion for lead, well below the current regulatory limit of 15 ppb.”

MUD’s efforts in this important area are informed by a bevy of regulations, especially the federal Lead and Copper Rule of the Environmental Protection Agency. The LCR requires water systems to monitor drinking water at customer taps every three years to determine lead and copper content. 

“The most recent regulatory updates will require increased communication to customers who may own lead water service lines; changes to the sample testing protocol; ensuring an accurate inventory of lead services in the community and escalating the removal of lead service lines in the community,” said Koenig.

In response, MUD developed a proactive strategy to meet the new guidelines. This includes changing its own requirements for repair and modification of old lines and accelerating its replacement of customer-owned services in homes. Koenig placed the average cost of each replacement at about $8,000 per service, meaning the total cost to upgrade affected services is expected to exceed $128 million.

“Since 2017, MUD has replaced more than 560 lead service lines as part of its infrastructure replacement program, which focused on replacing water mains,” Koenig said. “Our pace to date has replaced 100 to 200 services a year, and we will be ramping up to around 1,500 replacements a year starting in 2025. This 10-year strategy means the removal of all lead service lines by the end of 2034.”

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Energy Storage

On the energy front, sustainability is the order of the day as new technologies continue to redefine how cities and towns power the amenities of modern life. This includes the development of better batteries which are a critical component in alternative energy systems.

“Battery energy storage systems enable energy from intermittent renewable energy sources, like solar and wind, to be stored and released when customers need power,” said Sami Edens, marketing manager with Bluestem Energy Solutions. “Even if the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining, battery storage enables utilities to continue to provide power during peak demand.”

As more and more private citizens and businesses invest in alternative energy solutions, namely solar units on homes, offices and commercial buildings, advanced battery technology has become key to the ROI (return on investment) of such systems as it provides the means for storing the power being harvested. These same advances serve utility companies, albeit on a much more massive scale.

“Battery storage allows for better and easier integration of collar PV technologies,” Edens said. “On a larger scale, electric utilities that adopt battery storage for their wind and solar resources could retire legacy assets such as coal and natural gas plants and reduce the incumbent emissions, which can help improve the health of the public living in the vicinity of power plants.”

Portable power for laptops, cell phones and hundreds of other gadgets is also undergoing a technological revolution as it pertains to batteries, advancements that are also powering the shift to electric vehicles.

“Lithium-ion batteries have changed the landscape over the past 15 years or so,” Edens said. “In the last five years, the growth of electric vehicles has decreased the cost of Li-ion battery cells thanks to economies of scale.”

Renewable Natural Gas

Another major development in alternative energy is renewable natural gas, or RNG, which captures methane from sources like farms and landfills and recycles it, taking the sustainability of the fuel source to the next level. 

“Renewable natural gas is a critical source of energy, which has and will continue to reduce our country’s carbon emissions,” said Katie Fleming, Black Hills Energy director of corporate planning/sustainability/ESG. 

The company has expanded its efforts via Green Forward, a program providing natural gas utility customers the choice to offset the carbon footprint from their natural gas. Customers may voluntarily enroll at various levels of the program, starting at $5 per month, with the average residential Nebraskan spending $15 per month to completely offset their natural gas carbon footprint. 

Black Hills Energy Renewable Resources partners with companies across Nebraska and throughout the United States to spur new renewable natural gas development. The company is investing in and building new infrastructure to connect RNG projects with natural gas pipeline systems, moving thousands of dekatherms – a unit of measurement for natural gas – of renewable gas across the country. Finally, the company’s Net Zero by 2035 initiative is the company’s commitment to a net zero emissions target related to its natural gas distribution system.

“Black Hills Energy’s Nebraska system currently includes four operating RNG projects, with a fifth site launching in 2024,” Fleming said. “Biogas is captured, cleaned to produce pipeline quality renewable natural gas, and then used for a variety of different purposes like power generation or home heating.

“Natural gas will continue to play a critical role in a clean energy future, and our customers are increasingly looking to us for sustainable and cost-effective options to help them further reduce their carbon footprint. Whether through increased appliance and building efficiency, lower carbon fuels or investing in a low emissions gas delivery system, Black Hills Energy is ready to help fuel the future.”

Conservation Efforts

All new technologies and alternative fuels aside, the state’s energy future will also rely on wider adoption of individual accountability when it comes to conservation, said Eric BenSalah, energy advisor with Omaha Public Power District.

“Energy efficiency and energy conservation are two different concepts,” he said. “Energy efficiency is about using a technology to reduce your energy usage without reducing comfort, such as using LED light bulbs versus turning them off, whereas energy conservation is a behavior that reduces energy usage and usually comfort, such as turning the lights off no matter what, or taking cold showers. 

“There is a middle way, too. You can still have LEDs in your lamps and fixtures but turn them off when not in use. While this may not reduce much energy each day or month, it makes a difference year over year and contributes toward a smaller carbon footprint.”

To this end, BenSalah noted, new consumer energy products are making it easier for homes and businesses to better manage their usage. These include smart light bulbs and outlets and the new generation of smart thermostats.

“Smart light bulbs and smart outlets are a fantastic way to eliminate unnecessary energy usage, but also provide great comfort,” he said. “For outside lighting, there are new LEDs that have light sensors that will turn themselves on or off depending on how much light there is outside.”