Letters From the West

Why can’t we just use more hydropower?

Briana LeClaire of Boise, a consultant on school choice, read my story this morning on solar power and asked why we don’t just expand the use of our hydropower to meet our electric needs.

“More than once as we’ve taken the Connector into Boise and had the city spread out in front of us, I’ve talked to our three kids about how lucky we are to have cheap, clean power here. I’m a Boise native, but I’ve lived and worked in parts of the country that are mostly nuclear and coal-fired. I prefer hydro with its jobs, a clean environment, and fish,” she wrote.

Here is my response:
“Cheap” hydro is only cheap because the water is free and because we built the dams decades ago and they have paid off their capital. Just like when you buy a car, pay off the loan and no longer have payments. But in the case of Idaho
Power, its dams are involved in a relicensing process because the water is a public resource, not private. This is expected to cost about $500 million and also limits how the power can be generated to aid fish. Also, new equipment like turbines also adds to the cost.

That said, this legacy power will remain cheaper than new power sources in part because it does not emit greenhouse gases and won’t face future costs from efforts to reduce them to address climate change. There also are not fuel costs.

But here is the complicated issue: Cheap power is good for us but we can’t sell it to get new jobs because the companies that would be attracted to the cheap power would use a lot of power and that would require new power sources, which all cost more money.

Other readers have wondered why Idaho Power doesn’t build a nuclear plant but even if it partners with other utilities a nuclear plant would produce more power than the region needs in the near term. Once the nation figures out how it will address climate change and the future is more certain nuclear power may get another look.

That’s why energy efficiency is so attractive economically. It protects our cheap power for those existing companies that need it to compete and also reduces the costs for companies and people that use it even when the cost of power goes up.

If you are using power wisely and the price goes up you can still pay about the same if you use less.

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