Lincoln Electric System plans to stop publishing breakdowns for the cost of generating electricity at specific facilities in the wake of a for-profit competitor demanding to see its financial books.
Gary Aksamit, the head of an energy firm that has been pushing to sell electricity in Nebraska, earlier this year demanded the state’s four largest public power entities disclose what it cost them to generate power.
The utilities say they gave him thousands of pages of documentation but that revealing certain detailed numbers would put them at a competitive disadvantage. They say the information is a trade secret that state law allows them to shield from the public.
LES Vice President Shelley Sahling-Zart said the city utility spent hundreds of hours gathering documents for which Aksamit paid $4,215.50. LES did not hand over information about the rates at which it buys electricity from newer wind projects that are owned by private developers, she said. That pricing information is owned by the developer and subject to nondisclosure agreements.
Late last week, Aksamit filed court documents asking judges to force more information out of Omaha Public Power District, Nebraska Public Power District and Municipal Energy Agency of Nebraska. He has not filed a similar case against LES.
Attorney Chris Dibbern represents the Municipal Energy Agency and said rate projections and forward-looking energy costs are proprietary, and revealing them would give potential competitors like Aksamit an unfair advantage over public power.
“Even though we are a public power entity, we’re still in a competitive environment," said Sarah Jones, director of enterprise business support for the agency that sells electricity wholesale to utilities. "We get requests for proposals often that we have to respond to and we are competing with other potential power suppliers in that market,”
Aksamit has repeatedly criticized Nebraska electric rates and says customers have a right to know operational and financial details so they can decide the continued viability of public power in the state.
“They just don’t want to tell ratepayers what their cost structures are," he said. "That makes me a little bit nervous. Typically when you don’t want to show someone something it’s because you don’t want to show them something.”
Aksamit argues in the court record that the information isn’t protected by statute.
“The statute is intended to protect third-party information submitted to the government from disclosure to the public. It is not meant to protect the government’s own information,” the court request says.
Aksamit Resource Management, which has an office in Lincoln, last year unveiled a proposal to build 230 wind turbines on three sites in Saline, Thayer and Fillmore counties, representing an investment of about $725 million.
Aksamit also has called for turning electric generation in the state over to private business.
Nebraska is the only state in which all power utilities are publicly owned.
Historically, LES has sold power directly to end users and published details about how much it costs to generate that power.
But on March 1, 2014, the Southwest Power Pool -- to which LES has belonged since 2009 -- launched its integrated marketplace and now oversees the vast majority of the electric grid and wholesale power market in 14 states on behalf of utilities and transmission companies.
Now, LES buys and sells electricity on that market in competition with other regional power suppliers. Publishing certain details of its cost structure puts the utility, and by extension its ratepayers, at a competitive disadvantage, said Sahling-Zart, LES’ attorney and vice president of communications.
“I don’t think anybody is trying to hide anything," she said. "We are trying to comply with the spirit of public records law and at the same time protect our competitive advantage. Sometimes that’s a fine line.”
LES has discussed ending its practice of publishing the cost of producing power.
It would continue to provide aggregate energy rate information, but not a facility-by-facility breakdown, said CEO Kevin Wailes.
LES will be watching court proceedings closely and likely will follow whatever precedent they set, Sahling-Zart said.
Both NPPD and OPPD said they also have provided Aksamit with thousands of pages of documents.