It wasn’t long ago that Idaho Power was feuding with conservation groups and even many of its shareholders about its coal plants, energy-efficiency programs and renewable energy.
Today the utility plans to close two coal plants by 2025 and make programs to reduce energy a foundation of its business, and is even talking about building community solar projects that allow customers to produce their own power even if they can’t put a collector on their rooftops.
The utility that serves 515,000 customers across Southern Idaho and eastern Oregon has had many of these programs in the mix for several years. But with its battles over renewable energy on hold and no new power plants needed anytime soon, the company says it is trying to focus on ways customers can reduce their own bills.
It also has made money for its stockholders with seven consecutive years of earnings growth that put it among the top tier of utility stocks. Its power rates remain among the lowest in the nation.
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Darrel Anderson, who became president and CEO in 2014, has reached out to former adversaries such as Ken Miller, energy director of the Snake River Alliance, who was tossed off the company’s planning advisory board in 2012. Miller is back on the board, and he and others say it’s important that the company has been listening to what they have to offer.
“I think Darrel Anderson has created an entirely different culture over there,” Miller said.
The public comment period on Idaho Power’s Integrated Resource Plan ended Monday, and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission will make its comments soon. The plan outlines the company’s direction well into the future, but what it says for the next decade sets the framework for its programs.
Idaho Power and its partner, Portland General Electric, have decided to close their Boardman, Ore., coal plant in 2020. The new Idaho Power plan calls for retiring the Valmy Coal Plant in northern Nevada, which it owns in partnership with Nevada Energy, by 2025, if not before. Because of coal’s carbon emissions and ever-tighter U.S. limits on those, utilities that have alternatives are phasing out coal plants.
The analysis that led to the Valmy decision included ideas from the Idaho Conservation League’s Ben Otto, an energy attorney. It also included regulatory guidance from the Obama administration’s new carbon dioxide reduction rules under the Clean Air Act.
“According to the numbers, the cheapest date to close this plant is 2020,” Otto said.
Idaho Power has said since 2012 that it is on a “glide path” away from coal power, which still makes up 40 percent of its annual electrical generation. With its new natural gas plant near New Plymouth, and wind and solar plants either on line or expected over the next two years — along with its 17 hydroelectric dams — the company says it can meet the needs of customers into the foreseeable future.
The plan doesn’t call for a new-generation plant until 2031, when it projects it would build a new natural gas plant next to its existing one. By then, the fate of the Bridger Coal Plant in Wyoming, the last of the coal plants the utility co-owns, will be known.
HEAT AND ICE
In the meantime, the company is looking at new ways of getting customers to help it reduce demand when it needs it. Already the company’s Irrigation Peak Rewards program, which pays farmers to avoid pumping irrigation water during peak hours, has 320 megawatts of power the company can shut off in order to meet other power needs.
Overall, its program to manage power demand has 400 megawatts of power it can turn on or off, just like it can its coal, gas or hydroelectric plants. That energy includes its AC Cool program, which pays customers to allow the utility to turn off their air conditioners briefly during peak cooling hours.
One possible new initiative: Idaho Power is looking at ice-based thermal energy storage units at large commercial buildings that make ice during low-load, low-price times and then use the ice to chill the building. This means, perhaps, night-time wind power could create ice to cool buildings in the afternoon heat.
Solar energy has been viewed traditionally as a threat to utilities, because it allows residents to produce their own power and even make money if they sell their surplus back to the utility. It also puts the burden of paying for power lines and other infrastructure on customers without solar power.
Nonetheless, solar does produce electricity at the time of the day and year — late afternoons in summer — when Idaho Power needs it most.
An Idaho Public Utilities Commission decision in 2014 said that the relatively low numbers of rooftop solar systems going up on Idaho homes probably benefit other customers more than they cost. With solar panel costs continuing to drop, rooftop solar builders are still seeing high demand, said Kevin King, vice president of EvenGreen Technology in Boise.
A recent decision by the PUC to limit the length of contracts has reduced what Idaho Power sees as a burden to buy large utility-scale solar energy from independent developers of renewable energy.
BUY A PIECE OF
A SOLAR PROJECT
So Idaho Power now is talking about building community solar projects, which would allow customers to buy solar panels that would be part of a larger plant. This would allow people who don’t want or can’t build their own rooftop solar system to own solar.
Utilities across the nation are developing such systems, and Idaho Power met last week with its planning advisers to get ideas for developing a pilot program. The company also has talked about developing solar power plants at the end of existing power lines that serve a community or subdivision as a way to avoid having to build larger transmission lines.
That could help communities by giving them a local power source. Jordan Valley, Ore, lost power when its lines burned up in August’s Soda Fire. Idaho Power quickly took a large diesel generator there and, through the work of linemen, restored power so fast that the town held a celebration in its honor.
Irrigation farmers are looking for a similar program that would install solar at the end of their lines. Irrigation pumpers are committed to reducing the amount of water they take from the Snake River Plain Aquifer, and reduced pumping will mean reduced power demand.
This is a challenge and opportunity for Idaho and irrigators, said Lynn Tominaga, executive director of Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, which represents groundwater users. If Idaho Power can reduce its costs and give farmers credit for producing solar power, it might help both parties, he said.
The quest for similar opportunities already has driven companies such as J.R. Simplot to save millions of dollars through energy conservation. More than 1,700 Idaho Power residential customers participate in time-of-day billing, which makes it cheaper to use electricity during off-peak hours.
Studies by Idaho Power show these customers have saved themselves money on their bills. New technology with home automation systems will allow more savings; with experience, Idaho Power will be better at setting rates.
The Snake River Alliance’s Miller said Idaho Power and the entire Pacific Northwest are leading in programs that allow for business and population growth while keeping power use flat. There is no reason to believe the region can’t keep leading at innovation and conservation that benefits all sides, he said.