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The Lincoln Electric System Administrative Board on Friday unanimously approved a $380.6 million budget and rate structure for 2016.

For the second year in a row, LES said it is not requesting a systemwide rate increase. Last year's overall budget was $345.8 million.

The budget goes to the City Council next, with a public hearing set for Nov. 16. LES will have its final vote on Dec. 7.

Andy Pollock, a Lincoln attorney representing the Lincoln Employers Coalition, told the board his group of commercial and industrial LES customers strongly supports some of the key items in the budget.

He praised the LES staff for being prudent managers of the Sustainable Energy Program, which offers incentives to help customers reduce energy consumption. The utility plans to put $3 million into the program in 2016, down from the $4 million it has contributed the past two years. The reduction is planned for one year only.

Pollock said the coalition supports the use of some of the $10.8 million LES received from a BNSF court settlement related to coal transportation costs. LES is taking $6.3 million out of the settlement to fully fund its Rate Stabilization Fund, meeting its target goal of $28.5 million.

The utility uses the fund to cover one-time events such as repairs from storms.

Pollock said the coalition also likes that LES is proposing shifting some of the fixed power costs of producing electricity to residential, general service and heating service customers.

In general, low-usage customers would have slightly higher total bills and high-usage customers would have slightly lower total bills next year.

In other action, Jason Fortik, vice president of power supply, updated the board on the following renewable energy projects.

* Construction of the Holdrege Solar Center near Northwest 75th and Holdrege streets is set to begin in February, and the 5-megawatt solar farm should be completed in June 2016.

* Prairie Breeze II, a 73-megawatt wind farm in Antelope and Boone counties, has started testing and generating electricity and should be fully operational in November. LES is buying all of the electricity under a 25-year power purchase agreement.

*The Buckeye Wind Farm near Hays, Kansas, started generating power Oct. 5. LES is buying 100 megawatts, also under a 25-year power purchase agreement. Fortik said site restoration work is underway.

* The Arbuckle Mountain Wind Farm in Oklahoma began generation tests on Oct. 1 and should start commercial operation in November. LES is buying 100 megawatts under a 20-year power purchase agreement.

Assuming everything goes according to schedule, all three wind projects should in commercial operation by the end of the year, Fortik said.

Completion of the three projects should bring LES very close to meeting its goal of having 48 percent of the energy used by customers come from renewable energy sources, he said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7243 or alaukaitis@journalstar.com.

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