Idaho Power aims to end use of coal and natural gas — a ‘big deal,’ conservationist says

Idaho Power has announced a bold goal to operate its grid entirely on clean energy by 2045.

The investor-owned utility is one of the first to set such an ambitious goal. Only six years ago, Idaho Power used coal for more than 40 percent of the power it generates for its 560,000 customers across Southern Idaho and part of eastern Oregon.

“This is a big deal,” Ben Otto, an energy attorney for the Idaho Conservation League, said in a telephone interview. “There’s only a handful of utilities in the country that are doing this.”

Darrel Anderson, the president and CEO of Idacorp, the parent company of Idaho Power, has taken the utility back to its roots, before 1974, when its power was all carbon-free hydroelectricity. He said the company is giving customers what they want.

For instance, Brandy Wilson, J.R. Simplot Co.’s sustainability director, said Simplot is looking for access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy.

“Idaho Power has always recognized these needs, and this is an important step in ensuring we meet those sustainability goals,” Wilson said in a statement.

Other utilities have announced similar goals, but in the face of states’ mandates. “We’re doing this voluntarily, because we think it’s the right thing to do,” Anderson said in an interview at Idaho Power headquarters in Boise.

Idaho Power announced earlier this month that it would close one of two units of the North Valmy Coal Plant in Nevada, which it co-owns with NV Energy, in December, and the second unit in 2025. It will close the Boardman Coal Plant it owns with Portland General Electric in Oregon in 2020 and could close the first of three units at the Bridger Coal Plant in Wyoming, which it co-owns with PacifiCorp, as early as 2022.

The final Bridger coal unit could be closed by the mid-2030s, Anderson said.

Idaho Power’s Langley Gulch natural gas plant in New Plymouth and two smaller gas plants would quit operating before 2045.

Only three years ago, Anderson told stockholders that he didn’t believe Idaho Power would ever be able to go to 100 percent clean power. But prices have come down for solar by 88 percent and wind by 69 percent since 2009, according to Power Magazine. Prices for storage technology, including batteries, have dropped, too, though not as much, Anderson said.

As proof, the company announced Tuesday that it has signed a contract to buy 120 megawatts of solar power from Jackpot Holdings LLC, an Idaho company that plans to complete the solar array south of Twin Falls by 2022. Idaho Power will initially pay $21.75 per megawatt-hour — less than 2.2 cents per kilowatt-hour, among the cheapest in the nation.

The utility also has a head start because of its 17 hydroelectric plants that produce nearly half of its annual load. It also buys 20 percent of its energy from wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable developers.

While these renewable resources are “clean” by definition, they can’t be counted as renewable in the regional marketplace, because Idaho Power does not own the renewable energy credits that come with buying the energy. The credits, known as RECs, can be traded, so Idaho Power sells them to other companies that must meet mandates in California, Oregon, Washington and other states.

With no mandate in Idaho, the state Public Utilities Commission requires Idaho Power to sell its credits for the benefit of its customers. Idaho Power uses the proceeds to reduce its rates. This is important, because Idaho Power may want a policy change in the future so it can hold on to these credits.

Increasingly, Idaho Power customers have told the utility they want their energy to be clean along with cheap and reliable, Anderson said. This goal won’t sacrifice the price or reliability.

The price for storage has come down but is still not low enough to provide the backup needed for intermittent power sources like wind and solar. So Idaho Power will consider buying into a proposed modular nuclear reactor at the Idaho National Laboratory in East Idaho, Anderson said. Idaho Power uses no nuclear power now, but it considers nuclear to be clean, carbon-free energy.

“This plan demonstrates Idaho Power’s commitment to doing what’s right for customers’ pocketbooks and the environment,” Idaho Gov. Brad Little said in a statement. “It also shows innovation can improve our lives with solutions that are reasonably priced, responsible and delivered without government intrusion.”

California already has passed a mandate for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045, and Idaho’s other surrounding states are considering the same plan. But Idaho historically has rejected a mandate, though it has matched or exceeded the other states in growing renewable energy.

The Conservation League’s Otto hopes Idaho Power’s leadership will persuade other private utilities to follow.

“This is not driven by a government agenda,” he said. “It’s a business looking out on its energy landscape and hearing from its customers. I think that’s pretty interesting.”

It also has been on the Conservation League’s and other conservation groups’ agenda for decades in Idaho. The Idaho Conservation League led the fight in 1976 to stop Idaho Power from building a coal-fired plant in the Treasure Valley, and it joined other groups like the Sierra Club and the Snake River Alliance in a campaign to push Idaho Power out of using coal.

Initially the utility, balking at a federal mandate that it buy wind power from developers at a set price, posted a website opposing a wind-power mandate. But in response to a stockholder’s initiative, it has lowered its carbon emissions by 50 percent since 2005.

In recent years the company has worked with conservation groups on its planning process after financial calculations showed that closing coal plants sooner would save customers money. Now Idaho Power labels its new campaign: “Clean Today. Cleaner Tomorrow.”

Other utilities that have set similar goals include Minnesota-based Xcel Energy, which plans 100 percent carbon-free power by 2050, and Iowa-based MidAmerican, which says all of its power generation will come from renewables by 2020.

All of these changes come as President Trump has called climate change caused by fossil-fuel burning a hoax. Despite Trump’s strong support, Anderson doesn’t expect political blowback.

But he has heard some skepticism.

“Are you doing this just to be politically correct?” he said one employee asked.

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