Letters From the West

Idaho Power hosts debate over solar future

Tom Noll, Idaho Power senior planning analyst shows the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Council how the utility analyzes risks

Tom Noll, Idaho Power senior planning analyst shows the Integrated Resource Planning Advisory Council how the utility analyzes risks

Solar power won’t be a significant part of Idaho Power’s mix of resources for the next 20 years unless its costs drop, company officials said Thursday.

But renewable resource advocates responded that prices are low enough now that customers themselves will put up the capital to put solar panels on their homes. The debate was a part of the give and take between the utility and its Integrated Resource Plan
Advisory Council.

Idaho Power is required every two years to update its Integrated Resource Plan that lays out where it expects to get the power to serve 500,000 customers in eastern Oregon and southern Idaho. It develops the plan with the help of the advisory council that includes members from several customer groups, state agencies in Idaho and Oregon, and groups like the Idaho Conservation League.

The process made news last year when Idaho Power dropped the Snake River Alliance from the advisory council after it held a protest at the utility’s annual meeting. But Snake River Alliance energy analyst Ken Miller was at the meeting. And the discussions are free spirited, allowing he and other members of the audience to participate along with the council.

“I like this more open collaborative process,” said Tom Noll, Idaho Power senior planning analyst, who ran the meeting.

The company analyzes several mixes of resource portfolios based on how much demand it predicts and other factors such as whether Congress will put a price on carbon, which makes coal and natural gas more expensive. The utility is banking on meeting much of its grown in demand over the next two decades from the construction of the Boardman to Hemingway transmission line.

The line will bring power from Oregon and Washington, which have excess power to sell in the summer when Idaho Power needs it most to meet the high demand of air conditioners and irrigation pumps. The two coastal states have their peak demand in the winter mostly for heating.

So Idaho Power is looking at alternatives if the transmission line is built or not, with new natural gas plants or expanded programs to reduce demand during peak loads. It also analyzed an alternative developed by the Idaho Conservation League and Boise State University based on retiring coal plants Idaho Power has in Wyoming and Nevada early.
Another one looked a simply refurbishing one of the coal plants to run on natural gas.

A solar alternative that had previously been on the list was dropped, Noll, said, because of the high capital cost. That prompted a challenge from Idaho Conservation League’s Ben Otto, who said the utility only was looking at solar power plants it built and not at the development of thousands of solar plans by homeowners.

“We have to ensure the resource is built,” Noll said.
The track record of homeowners in other states should be enough for the utility to be able to plan, Otto said. Idaho was have hundreds of people building systems as the price of solar panels dropped until Idaho Power filed a proposal that removed the financial incentives.

“Idaho Power brought a case to kill it,” said Peter Richardson, an energy attorney.

That brought a terse response from David Hawk, who represents natural gas interests.

“I don’t think building solar units on individual houses is the role of a utility,” Hawk said.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission has received hundreds of comments on an Idaho Power Co. proposal to double net metering program that allows customers with solar panels to send power back into the grid. The PUC has scheduled a public workshop on the proposal April 25, customer and technical hearings tentatively set for the week of June 10 and a target decision date of July 1.
Idaho Power is proposing to double the capacity limit on the amount of energy that can be generated from its net metering customers from 2.9 megawatts to 5.8. It also wants to stop writing checks to solar and wind customers for surplus power at the end of a year. The investor-owned utility also wants to increase the rate solar and wind users pay for the power they get from Idaho Power and quadruple the fees they pay to hook up to the grid.

Idaho Power officials say the added charges are needed to ensure that its other customers aren’t subsidizing the solar-generating customers. Idaho Power said the increased costs and the taking of credits left over at the end of the year is an issue of fairness for other customers because the solar customers are not paying the full costs of the utility’s fixed costs, like power lines.

Solar customers say the changes proposed by Idaho Power will make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to recoup their investment in solar panels. Idaho Power claims the net effect on customers will vary depending on how they use and generate energy. Some customers will be paid more than they currently receive, while others will get less, the company claims.
California has developed programs where third party companies finance and build solar installations on homes, said Gynii Gilliam of the Idaho Department of Commerce. But Hawk responded that electric prices are higher there than in Idaho.
It would be better if the Idaho Legislature put in place the guidelines for solar progams, Noll said, instead of working it into the rate structure that is set by the PUC. Idaho Power had a pilot program to test a solar system it built but withdrew it.
Several in the audience urged the utility to include a pilot program with a third party company like in California. Otto said solar should be included in the Integrated Resource Plan.
“We’ve reached a tipping point in our economy where solar should be considered a resource,” Otto said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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