Letters from the West

Even with low carbon footprint, Idaho faces 33 percent carbon reduction

The Obama Administration has proposed cutting power plant carbon emissions by 30 percent below 2005 levels, an amount equal to the emissions from powering half of U.S. homes today.

The reductions will require Idaho utilities to cut carbon emissions by 33 percent based on carbon emissions and the plants used to meet its power needs. But because Idaho already has added significant wind power, approved energy efficiency programs between 2008 and 2011, carbon emissions from the power sector decreased over 40 percent in the state, the White House said.

The 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 other efforts at energy efficiency.

Idaho will have the flexibility to develop its own program to meet the goal or to join with other states. The Idaho Legislature does statewide power planning, but the Idaho Public Utilities Commission regulates investor-owned utilities and their own 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 a goal of 228 pounds per megawatt in 2030. An interim goal of 244 pounds per megawatt from 2020 to 2030 also is included in the plan.

These numbers don't include the coal plants Idaho consumers both pay for and depend on in surrounding states. They are included in their own individual states, which places Idaho among the lowest carbon emitters in the nation.

"I think its 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, non-hydro 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 states 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 one half of one percent. That's because Idaho gets its coal power from Oregon, Wyoming and Nevada.

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. The Idaho PUC already has urged utilities to check back before investing more money in out-of-state coal plants. Improvements in other states - even converting those plants to natural gas - could add costs to Idaho ratepayers.

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 increasing demand.

Idaho Power's primary project 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 increase electric bills but actually reduce them by increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand. It is betting on a trend already started through the nation that creative use of existing power generation will make up for required reductions in coal power.

Phasing out the coal plants will have other health benefits as well, the Environmental Protection Agency said in its press release.

Particle pollution, nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide would be cut by more than 25 percent and 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.

The EPA also proposes a flexible timeline for states who can't meet the June 2016 deadline for their plan all at once. States that have already invested in energy efficiency programs will be able to build on these programs.

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.