EPA says Idaho must cut carbon emissions by 33 percent

The state's low existing footprint gives it a head start, but neighboring coal may affect its ratepayers.

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJune 3, 2014 

Idaho energy regulators are waiting for the state's utilities to tell them how they will meet the Obama administration's proposed 33 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.

The proposal, unveiled Monday, leaves it up to the states to determine how to meet the reductions that will make previously cheap coal as expensive or more so than alternative power sources. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission had already warned Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, which both generate large percentages of their power with coal, that change was coming. In a 2013 order, it told Rocky Mountain "that it would be in the best interests of the company and its customers to devote more focus on the development of alternative energy resources."

Idaho already has added significant wind power, approved energy efficiency programs and pursued other projects that between 2008 and 2011 decreased carbon emissions from the state's power sector by more than 40 percent, the White House said.

The new plan also includes interim goals that could force Idaho Power to accelerate efforts to shift its generation from coal to other alternatives: natural gas, renewable energy and efforts at energy efficiency.

The Idaho Legislature does statewide power planning, but the PUC regulates investor-owned utilities and the utility's plans.

"By leveraging cleaner energy sources and cutting energy waste, this plan will clean the air we breathe while helping slow climate change so we can leave a safe and healthy future for our kids," said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy. "We don't have to choose between a healthy economy and a healthy environment - our action will sharpen America's competitive edge, spur innovation and create jobs."

In 2012, Idaho's utilities emitted 1 million metric tons of carbon from sources covered by the rule. The amount of energy produced was 4 billion kilowatt hours. So, Idaho's 2012 emission rate was 339 pounds per megawatt hours.

EPA is proposing that Idaho develop a plan to lower its carbon pollution to 244 pounds per megawatt in 2020 and 228 pounds per megawatt in 2030. The plan would be due by June 2016, though the agency would be flexible with states that can't fully meet that deadline.

Idaho's numbers don't include the coal plants in states like Oregon, Wyoming and Nevada that Idaho consumers both pay for and depend on. The plants are accounted for in their own individual states.

"I think it's interesting that Idaho's carbon footprint in the rule is among the lowest in the nation," said Ben Otto, an energy attorney for the Idaho Conservation League, which advocates low-carbon energy alternatives.

EPA's Idaho proposal includes existing, nonhydro renewable energy and a slice of nuclear generation provided to some parts of Idaho through the Bonneville Power Administration. It does not include adjustments for energy efficiency and demand-response programs the state may use to reach the 2030 goal, EPA said.

Idaho produces 70.5 percent of its power statewide from hydroelectric dams, EPA said. Natural gas accounts for 12 percent, wind 12 percent, biomass 3.5 percent and coal less than 0.5 percent - again, reflecting that its coal power comes from surrounding states.

The state goals set by EPA are general - not specific to any plant - and states don't have to use its recommendations if they develop their own alternatives, the agency said in materials provided with its press release.

Improvements in other states - even converting plants to natural gas - could add costs to Idaho ratepayers. But quickly shutting down the plants would leave the utilities and their customers with a stranded investment that could cause a "rate shock," said Idaho Power President and CEO Darrel Anderson.

The ICL's Otto said the utilities' own energy-efficiency potential studies show they can cost-effectively cut demand by 20 percent. With a mix of solar, wind and geothermal power built in Idaho, he's confident the state can meet the goal and its needs.

Idaho Power's primary project right now is to complete the Boardman-to-Hemingway 500-kilovolt transmission line to Oregon so it can tap into hydro and wind power on the west side of the Cascades. There, power use peaks in the winter, while it peaks here in the summer, benefiting customers on both sides of the mountains.

The administration says the plan won't raise electric bills, but will actually reduce them by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand. It is betting that creative use of existing power generation will make up for required reductions in coal power.

Phasing out the coal plants would have other health benefits, the EPA said in its press release.

Particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide would be cut by more than 25 percent. Nationally, the EPA estimates the changes would avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, up to 150,000 asthma attacks in children and up to 490,000 missed work or school days - providing up to $93 billion in climate and public health benefits.

EPA will accept comment on the proposal for 120 days after publication in the Federal Register and will hold four public hearings. The proposal would be finalized a year from now.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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