Idaho Power has been widely commended for its commitment to provide 100% clean electricity by 2045. And for good reason. Reducing the use of coal and natural gas will shrink carbon emissions, helping avoid some of the thousands of deaths fossil fuels cause in the U.S. each year. But another important benefit of Idaho Power’s goal has thus far been overlooked.
According to the climate group Science Based Targets, more than 550 companies have committed to carbon reduction targets consistent with the Paris climate agreement. This includes household names such as McDonald’s and Walmart, and major Idaho employers such as HP, Chobani and Clif Bar.
Companies with carbon-reduction pledges will increasingly seek to locate and grow their businesses in states with low-carbon electricity production. The recent announcement by Idaho Power is welcome news to those of us who want to see Idaho continue to attract and cultivate high-value businesses offering good-paying jobs.
So what’s it going to take for Idaho Power to reach its goal? The company already has a significant advantage on the path to entirely clean generation, with about two-thirds of its electricity coming from carbon-free sources such as hydropower, wind and solar. The rest is predominantly from fossil fuels, including natural gas plants in Idaho and coal plants in neighboring states.
Those fossil fuel plants play an important role in balancing the electric grid in southwestern Idaho. Remember that the grid is a system that must be kept in balance at all times. If demand and supply aren’t balanced, local or even widespread blackouts can result. The way grid operators achieve this balance today is by relying on a combination of what are called firm, dispatchable generation resources, which can be turned on when needed to compensate for the inherent variability of wind and solar power.
Today, this need is met in the U.S. using coal, gas, nuclear power and some hydropower facilities. As Google highlighted last year in a groundbreaking paper on 24/7 clean energy, companies such as Idaho Power will increasingly transition to zero-carbon generation to provide this firm, dispatchable electricity.
At present, the carbon-free options for filling this role are limited; nationally, nuclear power is by far the largest, at nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity, followed by hydropower. In the future, technology to capture carbon emissions may become cost-effective and allow coal and natural gas to operate carbon-free. Increased battery storage, expanded hydropower or the production of hydrogen could play important roles. And the next-generation nuclear energy, bioenergy and geothermal technologies being pioneered at the Idaho National Laboratory should come to market in the next decade.
To achieve its ambitious goal, Idaho Power will need the state of Idaho to support its plans to access increasing amounts of firm, dispatchable, carbon-free electricity. Doing so will help Idaho continue to attract and retain world-class businesses.
John Kotek, of Washington, D.C., is vice president of the Nuclear Energy Institute. He managed the Boise office of Gallatin Public Affairs from 2012 to 2014.