Letters From the West

Idaho Power’s coal decision is about when glide path starts

Hells Canyon Dam is Idaho Power's largest hydroelectric dam but dropping flows are reducing the power coming from all it dams. (USDA photo)

Hells Canyon Dam is Idaho Power’s largest hydroelectric dam but dropping flows are reducing the power coming from all it dams. (USDA photo)

Idaho Power and the federal government invested billions of dollars up front in the 20th Century to build the Pacific Northwest’s hydroelectric system that drove the region’s economy into the 21st Century.

They allowed Idaho farmers to turn the desert into a garden, allowed J.R. Simplot and others to create a world class food processing industry and finally made it possible for companies like Micron Technology to build a foundation for the state’s entry into the new digital frontier.

When the sites for new large hydroelectric dams were all filled, The Pacific Northwest prepared for the next shift in the 1970s. Utilities at the time assumed that energy use would grow at a rate of 7 percent annually, an estimate driven in part by the amazingly low cost of power in the region.

The Bonneville Power Administration’s customers, public, municipal and cooperative utilities, decided to invest in five nuclear power plants to meet the next wave. The energy crisis in the 1970s reduced demand and in 1983, the utilities defaulted on the debt, causing many bondholders to take deep losses and putting a debt on BPA customers of billions of dollars, that at one time overwhelmed its spending on fish and wildlife and other priorities.

Only one of those nuclear plant continues to operate near Richland Washington.

Idaho Power chose to fill the gap with coal but many of their customers and conservationists were skeptical about building a 1,000 megawatt coal plant between Mountain Home and Boise and the Public Utilities Commission killed it in 1976, preventing the utility from following the rest of the region’s painful over-building.

Instead, Idaho Power went in with other utilities to build coal plants in Wyoming, Nevada and Oregon and skillfully used purchased power on the energy market to help leverage its low cost hydro. This stretched out the era of “cheap power” into the 2000s.

That period has come to a close. Any new energy will cost largely the same for Idahoans as it is for customers in the world market.

We will still be able to leverage our past investments with energy efficiency but we must now make a transition again, this time to a digitally managed system that will instantly be driven by demand as much as supply. Idaho Power, with its “smart grid” technology is poised for this.

Lisa Grow, senior vice president of power supply for Idaho Power Co testified before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

Lisa Grow, senior vice president of power supply for Idaho Power Co testified before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

Lisa Grow, senior vice president of power supply, presented a vision of them going on “glide path” through this transition as she defended more spending to keep its largest coal plant operating.

The more than 100 customers who went to the Public Utilities Commission hearing Nov. 25 to oppose the spending want that glide path to start sooner than later. Idaho Conservation League energy attorney Ben Otto says it would be better for customers to pay off the remaining debt in the coal plants than adding to it.

Both Grow and Otto can pull from Idaho Power’s past to make their case. Otto can point to the up-front investments Idaho Power made in the Hells Canyon complex in the 1950s and 1960s. Grow can point to the way the utility has kept that investment working for customers up to today.


Ben Otto, the Idaho Conservation League's energy expert and attorney in both his "Captain Kilowatt" costume and a suit.

Ben Otto, the Idaho Conservation League’s energy expert and attorney in both his “Captain Kilowatt” costume and a suit.

When you see them speak you know they are both passionate and personally committed to their visions. They aren’t really that far apart.


We may soon hear what energy regulators think. The Oregon Public Utilities Commission will hold a technical hearing Monday on Idaho Power’s Integrated Resource Plan. The Idaho PUC decision on Idaho Power’s request that ratepayers cover the environmental upgrade costs of its Wyoming coal plant could also come as early as Monday.

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