Rocky Barker: Otter, not Idaho Power, leads on energy

January 13, 2014 

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has touted the potential of solar energy and continues to be a big supporter of nuclear power.

But his real leadership on energy has come from his promotion of efficiency. Very early in his first term, Otter recognized the value of energy efficiency for cutting costs to government and industry.

One of his first acts was to order former Idaho Department of Environmental Quality Director Toni Hardesty to lead a review of the state’s potential for energy savings. When Congress passed a stimulus bill in 2009, his then Office of Energy Director Paul Kjellander put millions of dollars into improving the energy efficiency of Idaho schools.

In 2010, he proudly announced establishment of the Boise State University-based Energy Efficiency Research Institute, part of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies.

After his State of the State address last week, Otter touted how energy efficiency helped blunt the effects of deep budget cuts on Idaho schools.

And he made the point again Tuesday as he announced the first winners of the Idaho Awards for Leadership in Industrial Energy Efficiency.

“By pursuing these opportunities, we free up capacity on our transmission system, make more energy available to help our Idaho businesses expand and, ultimately, become more economically competitive,” Otter said.

The three winning facilities — ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston of American Falls, ON Semiconductor of Pocatello and the J.R. Simplot Co.’s Smoky Canyon Mine near Soda Springs — saved enough energy to power more than 400 Idaho households for a year.

Otter became a supporter of energy efficiency as a natural outgrowth of working with his former father-in-law, J.R. Simplot, he once told me. The agri-business billionaire’s philosophy was to always try to turn waste into a product, such as feeding old potatoes to cattle.

When Otter announced the Energy Efficiency Research Institute, then-Idacorp CEO LaMont Keen was standing at his side. But the Idaho Public Utilities Commission has joined the chorus of green energy activists and others who say Idaho Power has backed away from that leadership.

“We are concerned that the company’s recent actions have fostered a stakeholder perception that the company is retreating from its” commitment to reduce electricity demand, the commission said in an order approving most of Idaho Power’s spending for efficiency and demand-side management.

The commission specifically said the company’s decision to back off programs to manage air conditioners and irrigation pumps, along with pulling out of regional and state energy efficiency groups, may have been warranted — but were not done collaboratively with the utility’s own Energy Efficiency Advisory Group.

“Based on the record in this case, we remain concerned that the company does not fully utilize” the advisers, the commission said.

Many observers conclude that Idaho Power is more interested in generating power that brings profits to its stockholders than expanding energy efficiency programs that, in the long run, save its customers money.

“I can’t see how the public can come to any other conclusion,” said John Gardner, the director of the Energy Efficiency Research Institute.

The air conditioner and irrigation programs will resume for summer 2014, after the commission, the company and others agreed on revisions to make the programs more cost-effective.

Bill Shawver, Idaho Power’s communications director, pointed to the agreement as a counter to the PUC comments last week.

“We take our role in energy efficiency very seriously,” Shawver said.

In 2012, Idaho Power said it was pulling out of the regional Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance when its contract expires later this year. That’s a $3 million investment.

Idaho Power is talking with others who can provide alternatives more focused on its customers, Shawver said.

Idaho Power also declined to help fund research efforts at CAES’ Energy Efficiency Research Institute, saying it could not agree with the participating universities about publication rights associated with the research.

It essentially wanted the ability to control what becomes public. CAES couldn’t agree to that.

“By agreeing to that, we lose credibility,” Gardner said. “That’s the most important thing we bring to the partnership.”

By not following through on Keen’s 2010 public commitment, it’s Idaho Power’s credibility that is taking a hit.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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