The Idaho Clean Energy Association wasn’t quite ready for its close-up when it took center stage in a fight for the survival of a key part of its membership.
The association formed last year with companies involved in local and international markets for renewable energy and energy efficiency. Many of its members install solar power systems on homes.
The solar industry was taking off at the time, because the price of photovoltaic solar panels had dropped to under $1 a watt, the level when Department of Energy officials say solar reaches “grid parity” with natural gas. Grid parity is when the lifetime generation cost of electricity from unsubsidized solar panels equals the cost from conventional sources.
With federal and state tax credits added, solar was a great deal, especially for business customers who pay more for electricity than residential customers. Solar customers could produce their own power at about 7 cents a kilowatt-hour over the life of the system. Energy efficiency was even a better investment.
The association was preparing to build its membership and tell its story.
“We’re triple-bottom-line companies,” says Kevin King, one of the owners of EvenGreen Technology, a Boise solar and energy-efficency company. “People, planet, profit.”
BORN OF AN ANTI-WIND CAMPAIGN
The group came together after Idaho Power ran an Internet advertising campaign that warned of the costs of wind power. It was part of a coordinated campaign by the investor-owned utility to persuade state regulators, political leaders and the public to stop or dramatically reduce the amount of wind and other renewable power the company was required to buy.
The PUC relieved that pressure with an order in December that lowered the price that utilities like Idaho Power were required to pay for wind. Idaho’s wind-energy gold rush ended.
“A lot of us in the business community felt that the underlying economic case for our industry was being lost in that battle,” says the association’s chairman, Leif Elgethun of Hailey’s Site Based Energy.
Meanwhile, Idaho Power delivered another blow. In November, the utility asked the Idaho Public Utilities Commission for permission to raise the rates that customers who generate small amounts of power pay, and to quadruple their fees to hook up to the power grid. Idaho Power argued that changing the rate structure was needed to ensure its other customers weren’t unfairly paying more than the solar producers for the utility’s transmission grid and services.
The filing had the effect of a storm cloud blocking the sun.
EvenGreen “had enough orders in the pipeline to get through, but there was a three-month chill,” says King, who has been in the solar power industry for 15 years, including six in Idaho. “Some (installers) weren’t so lucky.”
The Idaho Clean Energy Association filed as an intervenor in Idaho Power’s “net metering” case. It argued that solar customers actually were benefitting other Idaho Power customers by producing power when peak demand was highest — on sunny, hot summer days made for air conditioning.
The three-member PUC sided July 3 with the association and its allies, which included the city of Boise. Paul Woods, Boise’s Environmental Division manager, says the business voice was important: “I think it was the critical part.”
The decision gave Idaho’s solar industry a new lease on life.
But even as the association and the utility battled before the commission, the clean-energy group worked with Idaho Power’s staff on technical issues. Elgethun says association members and Idaho Power representatives went line for line through the utility’s proposal, looking even at specific equipment Idaho Power wanted to require contractors to use for interconnections.
“We didn’t necessarily agree with everything, but we compromised,” Elgethun says — a compromise that stands even though the PUC sided with the association.
WORKING FOR WIN-WIN-WIN
While the net-metering fight was a victory, the association was uncomfortable with its new image as David to Idaho Power’s Goliath.
“We’re not trying to be the small guy or the big guy,” Elgethun says. “We’re trying to promote clean energy.”
As senior vice president of development for the Site Based Energy, Elgethun works with Idaho Power on energy-efficiency programs for its energy management and construction clients.
All of the businesses in the association depend on good relationships with utilities not just in Idaho but in other states. They not only have to think about their customers’ needs but also utility customers, because both energy-efficiency and renewable-energy programs must be able to show they will benefit utility customers to secure PUC approval.
“We want to have a win-win-win for every side as often as possible,” Elgethun says.
An example is a Boise geothermal-power producer, U.S. Geothermal.
The company operates geothermal plants in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Its Oregon plant is on the Idaho Power grid.
In a conference call news conference in early October, President and CEO Doug Glaspey praised U.S. Geothermal’s partnership with Idaho Power. Ian Warren, a U.S. Geothermal geologist, is on the Idaho Clean Energy Association Board.
“It’s about economics, it’s about jobs and it’s about resources in the state of Idaho,” Warren says.
Idaho Power shares many of the clean-energy group’s goals, including business development and energy security, says Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman.
“Anything that can help to educate our customers about energy technology is a good thing,” Bowlin says.
TECHNOLOGY DRIVES NEW BUSINESS
Breakthroughs in lighting and digital technology are driving the growth of the clean-energy industry, attracting entrepreneurs and investors. The Northwest Power and Conservation Council said in 2010 that the Pacific Northwest can meet 85 percent of its demand for new electric power during the next 20 years through energy efficiency.
The council says that meeting that aggressive target, as it has met targets continuously since its creation in the 1980s, would create 47,000 jobs and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by 17 million tons.
The nation’s solar industry has come on in the last two years as prices have come down 50 percent since 2010. In the second quarter of 2013, 832 megawatts of solar panels were installed, a 15 percent increase over the first quarter, reports the Solar Energy Industries Association.
There are more than 9,400 megawatts of solar energy in the U.S. But Idaho has not seen the growth that states like California, Hawaii and even Utah have seen. That’s partly because overall, Idaho has the lowest electric rates in the nation. It’s also because the construction of more than 400 megawatts of wind power and Idaho Power’s 1-year-old Langley Gulch Natural Gas Plant have created a power surplus.
Community solar programs and local- and state-government support are helping states like Utah embrace solar, says Andy Tyson, co-founder and owner of Creative Energies, which builds and installs solar- and wind-power systems for residential, business and government customers in Idaho, Wyoming and Utah.
“Things are just a little further along in Salt Lake City,” Tyson says.
IDAHO POISED FOR GROWTH
As the economy grows and the power surplus disappears, the clean-energy industry will take off in Idaho, says Jay Larsen, executive vice president of the 4-year-old Idaho Technology Council, which shares some members with the Clean Energy Association. When it started, the council concentrated on educating policymakers about the potential of the technology industry and how other states made it grow.
The association is doing the same, preparing to go into the Idaho Legislature’s 2014 session without an agenda. “We want to provide them with information about how their decisions may affect business,” Elgethun says.
Most of all, the group seeks to show that renewable energy and energy efficiency provide home-grown power that will strengthen the state’s energy security.
“The most cost-effective solutions are going to be in renewable energy and energy efficiency moving forward,” Elgethun says.
Rocky Barker: 377-6484