This week Idaho faces a critical moment for its future prosperity and security. What is at stake? Hundreds if not thousands of jobs, income for farmers and other property owners, attracting new industries to the state, reduced and more stable power prices, and a larger tax base.
I am an energy strategist, having worked for global corporations and governments for more than 20 years, including Duke Energy, Google, Microsoft and the U.S. Department of Energy. Five years ago I moved back to Blaine County, bringing my work home, and I have been distressed to watch Idaho miss a vast economic, security and environmental opportunity: homegrown renewable energy.
According to Bloomberg’s Energy Outlook for 2030, solar will grow 10 times larger, becoming a $1.5 trillion industry globally; wind will double; and fossil fuels will fall by half. Here in the United States, solar is creating jobs at over 10 times the pace of the general economy and at a 20 percent higher median salary. China has more solar than any other nation, and Wal-Mart is the largest solar buyer in the U.S. Why China and Wal-Mart? Solar is cheap, creates good jobs and keeps energy costs stable.
Idaho Power, a government-created monopoly, has opposed independent sources of renewable energy, especially wind and solar. This week the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, tasked to protect ratepayers, will decide whether or not to grant Idaho Power’s proposal to effectively kill independent renewable energy in the state. Idaho Power has filed to reduce independent power contracts, including for solar, from 20 years to two. A project needs at least 15 years to attract investors. If the commissioners side with Idaho Power and the other monopoly utilities against competition, solar will be dead in the water.
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Idaho Power argues it is acting to keep power prices low, but let’s look at the facts. Large agricultural power user the J.R. Simplot Company is opposed to Idaho Power’s request because Simplot can save money and generate income by generating its own renewable energy. Idaho wants to attract major industries, and Idaho Power says its low-cost electricity will help, but the fastest-growing industries are major technology companies such as Google, Microsoft and Apple. Where are they going? Not Idaho. Apple is building solar in both North Carolina and California. Microsoft is using biogas and wind power in Wyoming and Illinois. They want 100 percent renewable energy and its stable prices, not Idaho’s grid, which includes 40 percent coal, all from out-of-state plants in which Idaho Power is invested.
Other states are finding smarter approaches. In a similar situation in Georgia, tea party activists who wanted energy choice in the face of increasing power prices joined with environmentalists and successfully convinced state leaders to further open their markets to solar. What happened? The utility, Georgia Power, is giving its customers low-cost power and individual choice. Georgia Power just signed contracts for more than 500 megawatts of utility-scale solar with 20- to 30-year contracts without rate increases, and now offers its residents rooftop solar installations, Nest Thermostats (reducing power bills), and Tesla battery storage systems (increasing power reliability). With the “encouragement” of customers and regulators, Georgia Power found that offering customers what they want also benefits the bottom line.
Idaho Power has recently indicated that it’s open to a better way forward, but we need the PUC to encourage it. Everyone in Idaho — ratepayers, farmers, conservationists, fiscal conservatives and business owners — has the chance to insist our utility monopolies jump out of the nest and try new wings. Then Idaho, our economy and our future will soar.
Aimée Christensen is CEO of Ketchum-based Christensen Global Strategies; she serves as chair of the Ketchum Energy Advisory Committee and is co-founder of the Sun Valley Institute for Resilience. She is a graduate of Smith College and Stanford Law School.