Idaho’s Public Utilities Commission has a delicate mission — balancing the concerns of utilities against the interests of ratepayers.
That formula will be put to the test this week, as the three gubernatorial appointees attempt to achieve some kind of truce between entrenched electric utilities and a growing renewable power industry.
The two camps have fought publicly — and bitterly — over the price utilities must pay for renewable energy. Idaho Power, the state’s preeminent utility, has said wind power is intermittent and costly to consumers. The renewable industry accuses the utilities of resorting to doomsday rhetoric in an attempt to squash the renewable sector.
Finding common ground between these industries, on disputes including but not limited to cost, would be a tough enough job for the PUC. But the commission also must balance the present against the future. The way the state has produced electricity for decades, as opposed to the way the state should produce electricity in the decades to come.
In a typical water year, Idaho Power gleans about 42 percent of its electricity from coal, from shares of the energy produced at several out-of-state plants. But one of these plants, in Boardman, Ore., is due to be decommissioned in 2020, and environmental and investor concerns could jeopardize new projects.
Natural gas is in the mix; production began June 29 at Idaho Power’s 300-megawatt Langley Gulch plant near New Plymouth. But as Boise energy attorney Peter Richardson told the Associated Press recently, this leaves the utility vulnerable to “notoriously volatile” energy prices.
Hydroelectricity has long been an Idaho staple, and under normal conditions, 17 hydro projects produce 51 percent of Idaho Power’s electricity. But Idaho’s hydro potential is largely tapped, and even smaller projects can spark heated controversy. On July 26, for example, the Idaho Department of Water Resources denied a water rights permit for a 10-megawatt project on Idaho’s Bear River — opposed by PacifiCorp, the electric utility that serves the area.
Considering this backdrop, Idaho cannot afford to drive away a renewable energy sector that is already producing power, creating jobs and generating revenue for local governments. These businesses can take their investment capital and their jobs elsewhere. If they do, Idaho residential ratepayers and businesses are left to depend on a limited power portfolio — and are susceptible to higher power rates in the long term.
No, the state’s established and politically powerful utilities can’t get everything they want from the PUC — not if everything has the effect of shutting down the competition.
The PUC must instead insist on a collaborative course. Even as Idaho Power has waged an ad campaign assailing the wind industry, the utility points out that its new Langley Gulch plant has been engineered to have enough flexibility to accommodate wind power as it comes available.
This — and not bare-knuckled turf battles — is the kind of thinking the state needs. And the kind of thinking that the PUC should demand.
“Our View” is the editorial position of the Idaho Statesman. It is an unsigned opinion expressing the consensus of the Statesman’s editorial board.