Reader's View, Idaho Power Co.: Coal serves as vital energy source for foreseeable future

May 21, 2013 

On May 14, Ken Miller of the Snake River Alliance used this space to demand Idaho Power Co. explain its decision to continue using coal to provide energy to homes and businesses in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon.

OK, here goes. Coal's place in Idaho Power's generation portfolio cannot be filled economically and reliably with any other available resource. Will that always be true? Probably not. Is it getting more expensive to operate coal plants? Absolutely.

But a thorough analysis and an expert, third-party review determined that upgrading our Nevada and Wyoming coal plants is currently the best way to continue providing safe, reliable, fair-priced electricity to you, your family and your communities. The study is on our website.

During a rigorous public process over the past year, in which Mr. Miller has participated, Idaho Power has evaluated numerous scenarios for ensuring the electrical service our customers expect.

When we update our Integrated Resource Plan every two years, Idaho Power examines a wide range of options - not just natural gas - for serving the region's power needs for the next two decades.

The result is that maintaining our coal resources by installing necessary environmental upgrades is not only the least-cost option, it is the most responsible choice in terms of the environment, reliability and security.

Energy diversity means energy security. Our resource portfolio is among the most diverse - and therefore secure - in the nation. We leverage hydro, coal and natural gas to provide dependable "baseload" energy, as well as purchased renewable resources, and combine them with energy efficiency programs and incentives. It's the same principle as an investment portfolio; a variety of resources minimizes the risk that comes with having all your eggs in one basket.

Clean, renewable hydropower remains the basis of our portfolio, providing more than half of our customers' energy needs in most years.

But it isn't enough. In years like this one, water can be scarce during summer months when demand peaks. Wind and solar can't pick up the slack. Last July, Idaho Power customers set a record for electricity demand. We had 500 megawatts (MW) of potential wind generation online, but on that hot, still day the turbines produced only 14 MW at peak demand.

Mr. Miller talks about replacing roughly 1,100 MW of coal production with "clean energy replacements," but he doesn't say what they are.

Idaho Power already has one of the largest percentages of wind capacity on its system of any western utility. Solar may ultimately play a role, but it can't always be counted on to deliver. Both come at a higher cost.

Our company is working to build the Boardman to Hemingway transmission line to the Pacific Northwest that will bring more wind and hydro power to our customers and help to accommodate renewables currently on our system.

Over the next 20 years, it would cost an additional $1.5 billion in today's dollars to retire the Jim Bridger and North Valmy coal plants and replace them with natural gas resources.

Make no mistake - upgrading emissions-control equipment is expensive. But there are no cheap options. Our legacy of clean, renewable hydro generation is the main reason our customers pay some of the lowest electrical rates in the country. Our overall carbon emissions are among the lowest compared to other utilities and have declined significantly over the past decade.

A day will come when the coal plants that help power our lives need to be replaced. Idaho Power will be ready for that day, but retiring these sources of reliable, low-cost power prematurely would not be in our customers' best interests.

Lisa Grow is senior vice president of power supply for Idaho Power.

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