Reader's View: Exemplary Idahoan Conley Ward leaves powerful legacy

November 28, 2013 

In 1974, a young Idahoan found himself at the wheel for a choice we can now see was among the most important in Idaho's last 50 years. Conley Ward was given charge of assessing, for the people of this state, Idaho Power's application to build a coal-fired plant just 20 miles from Boise. Against the status quo tides of the time, he assembled the case showing the plant was not needed, indeed would do Idaho great harm, and should not be built.

Three actors share the credit that it was not built: the people of Ada, Canyon and Elmore counties; Gov. Cecil Andrus; and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, where Conley worked and the buck stopped for the final decision. Citizens gathered signatures that forced county advisory ballots on the plant, and voters in all three then advised no. Andrus testified before his own utilities commission against the plant. And the commission denied the application in 1976.

All three were probably essential to the outcome. It's pretty certain that without the detailed legal, economic and health case Conley assembled - which no one else on the commission's staff then could or would have - the plant or some version of it would still be fouling our air and exploding our power bills today.

In 1977, Conley was appointed to the PUC. For the next 10 years, he and his partners there built the path to keep providing people affordable energy despite soaring costs for new energy, and blinkered resistance from most electric companies. They built a staff committed to serve people; overhauled rate designs so low-cost hydro was optimally allocated to people's basic energy needs; helped stop large water withdrawals from the Snake River that were emptying that hydro base; created conservation and renewable energy programs to provide cheaper and lower-risk power than coal or nuclear; said no to misguided utility plans when they had to; and ensured that poor, rural and minority Idahoans got fairer service.

Many people share credit for these achievements; Conley was at the vanguard.

Every state in the West faced the same challenges at that time, with little federal leadership and mostly stuck-in-the-past utilities. Conley joined a few other state regulators (most of them young) to invent the joint paths forward. In 1982, when active citizens in the Northwest states formed the NW Energy Coalition to work for fair, clean and affordable energy regionwide, Conley was the obvious choice to speak at its first meeting, to outline where energy regulation had to go to serve people in new times.

Two weeks ago the NW Energy Coalition gave Conley its highest award, named for another energy regulator: the Bob Olsen Eagle Award for Clean Energy Achievement.

The award was posthumous. Conley died on Oct. 28 at his home in Kuna.

As his family and friends grieve and give thanks for his life, a million-plus Idahoans still benefit, every day, from his public service (1974 to 1987). His intelligence, independence, courage and work ethic met, at the right time, a task for which the people of his native state needed a leader. I believe two of his other personal qualities clinched him as that leader. He grew up in isolated and often hard times on the edge of the Owyhee country, and he read history and sought its lessons his whole life. So in his public service he took the long view, and he never forgot how much is owed by any society to those with the least money, comfort and power within it.

Pat Ford, of Boise, has worked in Idaho conservation since 1976 and is former executive director of the Save Our Wild Salmon coalition.

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