Letters from the West

Idaho PUC prepares for hearings on shortening renewable energy contracts

Idaho renewable energy advocates are gearing up for hearings later this month on shortening the length of federally mandated contracts between the state’s utilities and solar developers.

Idaho Conservation League energy attorney Ben Otto is urging his members to turn out for the hearing Set for June 24 before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission at 7 p.m.

Idaho Power Co. asked that the 20-year contract length currently set for contracts with renewable energy developers be limited to two years. Later, PacifiCorp (operating as Rocky Mountain Power in eastern Idaho) and Avista Utilities joined the case, with PacifiCorp asking for a three-year contract limit. The commission agreed to set the contract length at five years while it gathers evidence and conducts hearings.

The interim five-year limit applies only to solar and wind projects larger than 100-kilowatts and all other renewable projects larger than 10 average megawatts.

The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 requires utilities, which otherwise have a monopoly over power sales, to purchase the renewable energy at the same price it would pay to build another power plant, called the “avoided cost.” PURPA, as the law is known, is designed to offer a market for energy entrepreneurs with small projects and encourage alternatives within the century-old world of regulated monopolies.

Otto said in his blog Tuesday Idaho Power’s proposal is unfair.

“When our utilities build a power plant or transmission line, we customers repay them over the life of the project—20 to 30 years or more.,” Otto wrote. “Independent companies can't finance multimillion-dollar projects when they only have a two-year contract. Shouldn't they get the same long-term deal to recoup their investment?”

The second public hearing is a telephonic hearing on Tuesday, June 30, at 7 p.m. During the telephonic hearing, interested customers from across the state will be able to call a toll-free number and present their testimony to the three commissioners who decide the case. They will also be able to hear the testimony from other callers as well as questions, if any, posed by the commissioners.

Idaho Power has argued that it has no need for new power sources until 2021, but at one point faced as many as 73 proposed solar projects exceeding 1,325 megawatts. Combined, the utility said, the projects would have cost more than $2.7 billion for electricity that is not needed to serve its customers.

Using this argument it has gotten corporations, the Pocatello-Chubbuck Chamber of Commerce and cities like Star and Parma behind them. KMTV in Twin Falls even goes so far as to infer that all 64,000 viewers of its TV station are solidly in Idaho Power’s corner.

Many of those projects were never seriously proposed, said Otto. And most of the proposed projects have died.

That winnowing shows that the system is working the way it’s intended, he said.

Advocates say such projects would lock Idaho customers in at today’s low rates, because once built, solar plants would produce power without fuel costs, and federal credits make solar projects doable.

Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch has even introduced a bill in Congress that would allow public utilities such as Idaho Power to deny contracts to independent power producers if they can show they don’t need the electricity.

At the public hearings, customers may present oral testimony to the commissioners. Commissioners, acting as judges in the case, hear testimony and may ask questions, but do not discuss the case or answer questions regarding the case.

The June 30 telephonic hearing will begin at 7 p.m. Customers who want to testify or listen to the hearing call the toll-free number, 1-800-920-7487, and enter the participant code, 76373262#.