More than three weeks into its flood fight, with almost 30 percent of electricity generation off line and more still vulnerable, the Omaha Public Power District chief said there's no way to tell how much this summer's flood will cost customers.
However, Gary Gates, president and chief executive officer, said he's hopeful that OPPD customers will be spared much of the burden.
“It will depend upon the duration of this event — if we have to (raise rates) this summer,” he said.
The utility will turn first to federal disaster aid and its own belt-tightening to recover its costs, he said.
“We'll keep pressure on ourselves first. We want to make sure we have wrung every dollar out we can before we would allow a rate increase,” Gates said.
Utilities across the region — OPPD, MidAmerican Energy Company and the Nebraska Public Power District — are battling the flooding Missouri River.
None was prepared Friday to release cost estimates on what they've spent to date.
OPPD and NPPD would be eligible to apply for federal aid for costs dealing with infrastructure because they are public utilities, said Bob Josephson, a regional spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. MidAmerican would not qualify because it's a private utility, he said.
For now, OPPD customers are more vulnerable to higher rates than those at NPPD or MidAmerican, because OPPD's nuclear power plant remains off line until floodwaters recede.
The nuclear plant produces almost 30 percent of OPPD electricity and at a relatively low cost. Lacking that plant, OPPD will have to turn to more expensive backup power plants in its fleet or the open market, if the summer's heat pushes up demand.
Temperatures next week are forecast to be seasonal — in the 80s. The average high at Omaha at this time of year is 85 degrees.
Electricity costs are not reimbursed by FEMA, Josephson said, because the electricity is being resold.
Gates said Friday the situation at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station — nearly surrounded by water — will not become America's version of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.
“I can assure you a Fukushima level event will not occur at Fort Calhoun Nuclear Station. ... There is just no similarity between flooding conditions on the Missouri and the tsunami,” he said.
All of OPPD's multiple sources of electrical power are functioning, he said, including the six power lines coming into the Fort Calhoun plant and backup diesel generators.
Power plants locate along bodies of water because they need water for electric generation.
In addition to Fort Calhoun, OPPD has two coal-fired plants along the Missouri River that are at some risk, and another that is at much less risk.
The two coal plants at risk are near Nebraska City on a joint campus. They provide about half of OPPD's total generating capacity, according to the district.
The utility has a 60-day supply of coal on site and is raising the railroad bed 3 feet to ensure a continued supply, Gates said.
On Friday, the river was at 922.4 feet elevation at Nebraska City, when compared to sea level. The levee protecting the plant does so to 926.5 feet, so OPPD has added another foot to it.
That means the plant has about 5 feet to spare on the levee, assuming it holds. Gates noted that during inspections of the levee, workers found and filled some gopher holes.
Besides elevating the levee, OPPD has installed interior barriers and berms on the coal plant campus, some of which are higher than the levee.
OPPD's north Omaha plant is the utility's most protected, with more than 8 feet to spare on Friday between the river level and the top of the levee.
NPPD also has a nuclear plant, Cooper Nuclear Station, in Brownville. Based on Friday's river levels, Cooper could withstand about a 6-foot rise before it would have to shut down, said utility spokesman Mark Becker.
MidAmerican Energy has about 10 feet to spare at its Council Bluffs power plant, said spokeswoman Ann Thelan. That's due, in part, to a 4-foot levee built in response to the flooding.
MidAmerican customers would not see higher rates this summer as a result of the flooding expenses, Thelan said, because a rate freeze is in effect.
The Army Corps of Engineers and National Weather Service project the river to crest at about 6 inches to 2½ feet higher than its level Friday. Those estimates are based on normal to above-normal rainfall, but do not take into account any extraordinary rains across the basin.
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