Letters From the West

Northwest positioned to lead in low carbon economy

Mark Stokes, manager of Idaho Power’s power supply planning, poses July 29 on the roof of the agency’s Boise offices with a solar array that has been gathering energy from the sun since the early 90s.

Mark Stokes, manager of Idaho Power’s power supply planning, on the roof of the utility’s Boise offices with a solar array that has been gathering energy from the sun since the early 90s.

As the nation moves toward a low carbon energy economy the Pacific Northwest and Idaho are sitting in a very competitive place.

Non-carbon producing resources account for more than 70 percent of the region’s energy supply, giving its power system the lowest greenhouse gas emissions intensity of any region in the country.

The region benefits from the 55 percent of electricity that is generated by hydroelectric power. Plans to close the Boardman and Centralia coal-fired power plants in Oregon and Washington will drop emissions even lower in the future., said the Northwest Power and Conservation Council.

The Northwest is on track to meet the Council’s goal to improve efficiency by 1,200 average megawatts by 2014, enough to power a city the size of Seattle. This comes even as the incentive for utilities like Idaho Power to continue or expand energy efficiency programs as dropped because of low demand and the building of both natural gas plants and wind plants.

Wind development dropped off in Idaho after a sale tax rebate ended and Idaho utilities challenged the state’s program for renewable energy development. The rate of growth of renewable across the region also is expected to slow because of changes in policies in California, where much of the wind power produced in the region is sold, the council said.

The council’s updated power assessment also showed the costs for energy efficiency projects are well below the cost of other types of new electricity resources. The report also showed the region’s power system is changing.

New power projects historically were driven by seasonal power needs but now the need to meet peak loads and provide flexibility to back up variable-output renewable resources is changing how experts plan. The transition presents both opportunities and challenges for the states and utilities.

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