Letters From the West

Idaho Power solar proposal gets more people involved than big rate hike

Idaho Power vice president for regulatory Affiars Greg Said testifies before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

Idaho Power vice president for regulatory Affairs Greg Said testifies before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

Everett and Eileen Vanderpool were among the more than 80 people who showed up Tuesday to tell the Idaho Public Utilities Commission what they thought about Idaho Power’s net metering proposal.

They were among the 386 people who have the connection that allows them to send power they generate from their roof-top solar panels wind turbines or small hydro-plants into Idaho Power’s grid. The Vanderpools finished installing their system last November, just before they got the letter telling them Idaho Power intended to quadruple their fees and confiscate surplus power they produced at the end of the calendar year.

So consider that 12 days ago the PUC approved a 15.3 percent power cost adjustment for Idaho Power customers, the fourth largest in the history of the program. The PUC held hearings in Pocatello, Twin Falls and Boise and less than a dozen people attended.

Last night 24 people testified in the net metering case, 40 attended the public hearing and another 42 attended the technical hearing during the day including the Vanderpools. Earlier 82 people attended a workshop on the case.

Idaho Power officials said in their testimony Tuesday they had only followed the commission’s directive when they made the filing out of nowhere because they were nearing the cap on the amount of power they could get from net metering customers.

The utility made the filling it said to ensure that its other customers were not subsidizing net metering customers. Throughout the technical hearing Tuesday Commissioner Marsha Smith corrected anyone using the term subsidy to “cross subsidy” since at any given time electric users were either subsidizing or being subsidized by others on the Idaho Power system.

But Idaho Power acknowledged that at the current number of net metering customers producing .02 percent of the utility’s summer peak generation there was no impact on other customers. There likely won’t be an impact if the number doubles.

Even at 30 megawatts or about 1 percent there will be little impact on customers or Idaho Power. But the filing caused a lot of disruption in the lives of people like the Vanderpools who have been worried that all of their estimations on the payback they could expect are now out the window.

Several observers, including some with clout, wondered why Idaho Power had not talked to their customers before making this filing. If they had then they might have sooner changed it to a credit program that allowed customers to self-select their calendar year for when the credits would be forfeited.

Or they might have talked to the irrigation customers who need a longer time because of the intervals between dry and wet years. In fact, because they had less than 400 customers they might have been able to have developed a collaborative proposal they could have taken to the commission together.

Idaho Power has a lot of good will to work with since it has the lowest electric rates in the nation. Our Idaho Statesman poll in 2012 showed that.

But rates are only going to go up since any new generation is going to cost Idaho Power and its customers more. More rate shock proposals like the net metering case will burn through that good will quickly.

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.

Posted in Letters from the West