Letters From the West

Idaho PUC approves new direction for demand response programs

A program to pay customers to management air conditioner use is put on hold this year (Idaho Power photo)

A program to pay customers to manage air conditioner use is back.(Idaho Power photo)

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission approved a settlement that expands the scope of Idaho Power’s demand response program from simply reducing peak load.

The public utility had convinced the PUC earlier this year it did not need its A/C Cool Credit program, which allowed the utility to briefly turn off participants’ air conditioners, or the Irrigation Peak Rewards program, which turned off irrigation pumps.

But then Idaho Power sat down with PUC staff, the Idaho Irrigation Pumpers Association, the Idaho Conservation League, the Snake River Alliance, EnerNOC — a contractor that works with irrigators on the programs — and the Industrial Customers of Idaho Power to seek a new direction for the programs that will play an increasing role in electric power management in the future.

They came out with a program that is designed to delay construction of new peaker power plants that are among the most expensive per megawatt-hour to build. The program is also meant to avoid transmission line losses and provide improved reliability during emergencies. Previously, the utility’s demand response program had simply been viewed as a way to expand its electric power capacity during peak seasons.

That in itself is important. This year when Idaho Power hit its record peak in demand of 3,407 megawatts two days in a row during a hot spell in July, it was forced to tap into its reserves because it did not have 327 megawatts available from A/C Cool Credit or the Irrigation Peak Rewards program.

“We believe it is important for the company to continue its demand response programs to ensure it has sufficient, reliable (demand response) resources to meet expected deficits,” the commission said. “Circumstances such as increased demand related to business relocation and expansion, coupled with increased residential construction can occur quickly.”

This first step lays the foundation for Idaho Power to consider what other utilities are looking at in greatly expanded demand response programs. Energy experts say that Idaho Power has sophisticated new information technology and has given customers new smart meters, which can turn thermostats on and off and regulate power use to save customers money.

Idaho Power could remotely adjust thermostats in buildings throughout the grid by just a half-degree up or down, essentially turning the buildings themselves into thermal batteries, said John Gardner, director of the Boise State University-based Energy Efficiency Research Institute.

This capability, if used, could help Idaho Power more efficiently integrate the 675 megawatts of wind power it now says is difficult to manage. Once it completes the Boardman to Hemingway transmission line that will connect Idaho Power to the Northwest grid in a much larger way, this capability will be spread over a bigger area, which will reduce the impact on each participating building or customer.

The settlement doesn’t go that far. And regulated utilities inherently move slow on this stuff. But the commission, the company and its partners are going in that direction, not backwards.

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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