|There’s a lot on the energy news front as we head into Earth Week! Idaho Power received a surprise earlier this month when its majority partner in its Nevada coal plants announced plans to get out of the coal generation business. The state’s largest utility will also draw a crowd at an April 25 workshop at the PUC’s Boise’s headquarters to hear from the public about its plan to change the way it runs its program that allows customers to install small renewable energy systems on their property. And as customers just received the bad news from Idaho Power that their rates will rise this summer due in part to poor river flows and power generation, the PUC granted the company’s request to turn off a couple of energy-saving programs, including the popular “AC Cool Credit” program that pays customers who volunteer to have their air-conditioners turned off periodically. Finally, check out the Snake River Alliance’s new video that helps demystify how the Idaho PUC works – and how you can participate in utility cases. And take a look at Bonneville Power’s new book on the past 30 years of power generation – and politics – on the Columbia River, as well as some cool tips from the U.S. EPA on how to get more enjoyment out of Earth Day. And as always, we take a look at some of the energy events coming up in the next few weeks.
Thanks as always, and if you have any calendar items, please send them along!
I: Idaho Power’s Partner in Nevada Coal Plants Plans to Get Out of Coal
In a move that caught Idaho Power by surprise, its 50-50 partner in the North Valmy coal generation complex in northern Nevada announced it was withdrawing from the coal generation business and opting instead for power from natural gas and renewable energy resources.
NV Energy’s announcement earlier this month was viewed as something of a breakthrough for those who have long advocated the retirement of the company’s dirty coal plants. However, the plans to replace much of that power with huge amounts of natural gas generation have tempered optimism that the utility is actually trending green. Regardless, plans by the utility that serves most of Nevada’s electricity customers to abandon coal plants in Nevada and Arizona raise big questions for the Idaho utility that recently doubled down on its commitment to coal.
In its recent “Coal Unit Environmental Investment Analysis,” known informally as its “coal study,” Idaho Power reviewed each of the coal plants in which it has an ownership stake and concluded that it would be in the company’s best interest to invest huge sums of customer money in environmental upgrades to its plants rather than converting them to natural gas or cleaner resources. That study identified the North Valmy coal plants as “a critical facility for the reliability of the electric system in northern Nevada.” One month later, Idaho Power’s senior partner in the North Valmy ownership agreement said it is getting out of coal.
What does that mean for Idaho Power’s resource planning in the coming years, given that it has already said it’s sticking with coal for the foreseeable future? The company doesn’t know yet, although it is well into its “integrated resource plan” process that will show how it expects to serve its customers for the next two decades. Idaho Power’s coal study submitted to regulators in Idaho and Oregon said the utility plans to commit “no later than the third quarter of 2013” to its share of a very expensive new “dry sorbent injection” (DSI) system to comply with new federal mercury and air toxics standards.
That coal power has fallen out of favor in the utility industry outside of Idaho is evidenced by the fact that some of the nation’s largest utilities have announced plans to retire their coal plants early rather than run the economic and regulatory risks of coming state and federal health and environmental rules, particularly those that will regulate carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. In order to comply with new and anticipated regulations, utilities such as Idaho Power will need to invest tens of millions of dollars – if not more – in power plant upgrades. At the same time, the costs of wind, solar and other renewable energy resources continue to decline, along with the prices for natural gas, which many utilities have turned to as a coal replacement.
Those interested in reviewing Idaho Power’s coal study, as well as the Snake River Alliance’s memo to the Idaho PUC in response can do so at http://www.puc.idaho.gov/internet/cases/summary/IPCE1111.html
II: Big Turnout Expected for April 25 PUC Workshop on Idaho Power Solar Case
The Public Utilities Commission will sponsor a workshop April 25 to allow all comers to speak their piece on Idaho Power’s proposed changes to its “net metering” program that has especially drawn the ire of those who have or who want to put small solar photovoltaic installations on their homes and businesses.
Idaho Power has proposed big changes in how the program is administered, and almost all of the 250-plus comments that have poured into the PUC so far take issue with the company’s plans and say the changes might derail the fledgling home and business solar industry across Idaho Power’s southern Idaho territory.
Judging from the interest in the case in a prior meeting, it’s likely the PUC’s meeting room will be jammed. The workshop begins at 9 a.m. in the PUC offices at 472 West Washington Street in Boise.
Critics of Idaho Power’s plan say it may remove some of the incentives to install renewable energy systems on homes and businesses. Other customers told the PUC they have invested thousands of dollars on their solar systems and are now worried the utility is changing the rules on how the program is run.
Net metering programs allow customers to install renewable energy systems (mostly solar) on their homes or businesses to help meet their energy needs. During times when they generate more electricity than they need, the customers can sell the excess power back to the utility or get credits for the extra energy; in effect making their meters run “backward.” Many customers have utility bills with no charge or even rebates during times of higher power production.
Several parties have filed to participate in the Idaho Power case before the PUC, including environmental groups (Snake River Alliance and Idaho Conservation League) and a number of renewable energy businesses, as well as the city of Boise, which told the Commission that Idaho Power’s request will undermine the city’s attempts to promote solar power and other sustainability initiatives and also hurt the city’s attempts to recruit new renewable energy businesses.
To read documents in the case, including comments submitted to date, go to www.puc.idaho.gov and then “File Room” and “Electric Cases” and scroll to IPC-E-12-27.
III: Big Rate Hike for Idaho Power Customers After Power Cost Adjustment
Idaho Power customers will likely see an eye-opening rate increase if the Idaho PUC grants its application for a “power cost adjustment” (PCA), which was filed April 15.
Power Cost Adjustments are filed annually by utilities to adjust for such things as the cost of fuel like coal or gas to produce power over the past year or for stream flows that are critical to the company’s hydropower operations. Sometimes customers get a pleasant surprise if those costs were lower than expected, such as when Idaho has a good water year that reduces costs. Sometimes, like this year, not so much. For residential customers, the company proposes an increase of 12.5 percent ($11.38 on a typical monthly bill), while most other customer classes would be higher. If the PUC were to spread the increase over two years, the increase for residential customers would be 8 percent, or $7.28 a month. The customers will pay either way, however.
This is the largest such adjustment in a decade. Idaho Power says the primary reasons are worse-than-expected hydropower conditions as well as a decline in projected revenues from the sale of surplus energy.
Unlike in regular “rate cases” in which utilities seek to adjust their revenues, PCA cases tend to be fairly straightforward – yet still painful for customers. That’s because the company’s numbers justifying the increase or decrease are checked by PUC staff and others, and if they check out then the utility’s request is usually approved. In this case, the company wants the increase to take place beginning in June. Recent PCA cases have seen a 5.1 percent increase in 2012, a 4.8 percent decrease in 2011, a 6.5 percent decrease in 2010, and a 10.2 percent increase in 2009.
To review Idaho Power’s Power Cost Adjustment application and related documents, go to www.puc.idaho.gov and then “File Room” and “Electric Cases” and scroll to IPC-E-13-10.
The Idaho PUC has also made available a backgrounder explaining how the PCA works and why. You can find it on the Commission’s home page at the above address, or at http://www.puc.idaho.gov/pcahistory.pdf
IV: PUC Agrees to Allow Idaho Power to Shut Down Energy-Saving Programs
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission has approved a settlement agreement that will allow Idaho Power to halt two of its “demand response” energy-saving programs this summer, but it agreed with those who reached the agreement that the utility should participate with other parties this year to plan for the programs’ future.
The affected programs include one in which residential customers volunteer to have their air-conditioners cycled off periodically to shit power consumption to times of lighter demand. A similar program includes irrigation customers. In both cases, the company pays set amounts for customers willing to participate during the summer months.
The utility reached an agreement with PUC staff and with environmental and irrigation interests to temporarily shut down its “AC Cool Credits” and its “Irrigation Peak Rewards” programs. Idaho Power began these demand response programs as a way to deal with “peak” periods of electricity consumption and to reduce power use during times of extraordinary electricity demand. The programs are designed to help shift power use to other times of the day in hopes of delaying the need for expensive but little-used “peaking” power plants that are activated to meet peak demand during a limited number of hours each year.
After Idaho Power built its $400 million Langley Gulch natural gas plant near New Plymouth last year, and after its demand for power flattened due to the recession, the company said it doesn’t need to turn to those energy saving programs.
To review the documents in this case, go to www.puc.idaho.gov and then “File Room” and “Electric Cases” and scroll to IPC-E-12-29.
V: Snake River Alliance Video Explains How to Plug Into the Idaho PUC
By many measures, participating as a utility customer in matters before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission can be an intimidating experience. The energy lexicon and the world of utility regulation seem impenetrable. And, really, how many utility customers want to raise their right hand before telling the PUC what they think about a rate increase?
The Snake River Alliance is working to demystify the world of the PUC – and to help you understand how the Commission operates and most important how to have your voice heard when a utility proposes something to which you may disagree.
The Alliance has created a short video on understanding the Idaho PUC and how to participate in PUC matters. You might find it’s not nearly as intimidating as you thought!
Check out the video at www.snakeriveralliance.org/puc-video
VI: PUC Issues Order in Investigation into Low-Income Weatherization Programs
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission recently issued its order on the results of a comprehensive investigation into cost and funding issues for low-income weatherization programs as well as energy conservation programs being implemented by Idaho’s three regulated electric utilities.
The PUC opened this case in February 2012 in response to a number of other cases and concerns raised by organizations such as the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho (CAPAI) who have questioned the funding commitment by some utilities for low-income energy programs. In addition, the PUC, CAPAI, utilities, and other stakeholders wanted an opportunity to assess how such programs are working – and how they’re paid for.
After a workshop on the issues and after receiving several comments, the PUC staff issued a report on its findings in October. After taking comments on that report, the Commission issued its order on several recommendations by staff and others.
To review the PUC staff’s report on the weatherization and energy conservation programs, as well as the PUC’s recent order and other documents in the case, go to www.puc.idaho.gov and then “File Room” and “Electric Cases” and scroll to GNR-E-12-01.
VII: BPA Issues Anniversary Book on Power Generation on the Columbia
The Bonneville Power Administration, which turned 75 this year, has released a book it describes as “a rare inside look at difficult decisions and turning points in the Northwest’s power industry.” The 300-page “Power of the River” book is designed to chronicle the evolution of power generation in the Northwest since 1980.
“The book demonstrates how BPA successfully evolved, sometimes in the face of crisis, to become an even more durable and resilient organization,” new BPA Administrator Bill Drummond said in BPA’s newsletter.
The book is available in a PDF format (caution – it is a very large file) on BPA’s website at www.bpa.gov/goto/Book. Paper copies of the book can be purchased for $10 by going to www.bpa.gov/goto/PurchaseBook.
VIII: It’s Almost Earth Day. Are You Ready?
The Environmental Protection Agency wants to know if you’re ready for Earth Day, so it has issued an April 2013 EARTH DAY EXTRA as part of its regular EPA News You Can Use. You might want to check it out as you get into the spirit of events happening around you in the coming days.
First, go to www.epa.gov/gogreen and subscribe with your email address. There are many very cool blogs and lists with good ideas on how to green up! The Earth Day GoGreen! sites include such things as staying safe while your outdoors on Earth Day to how to share photos on Flickr and tips on how you can tweet about why protecting the environment is important to you. But you don’t need to be a social media nerd to enjoy a lot of what they have to offer. Just check it out.
On The Agenda:
►”Drying for Freedom” is an uplifting film by British filmmaker Steven Lake who travelled the world looking for reasons way clotheslines have been banished in favor of energy-hog electric dryers. The BSU Sustainability Club and the Snake River Alliance present Lake’s move for free April 18 from 5 p.m.–7 p.m. at the BSU Hatch C Ballroom. Come see what’s right with solar-powered clothes drying.
► The Portneuf Valley Environmental Fair will be held Saturday, April 20, at the Optimist Park in Pocatello. The free event features free food and live music, more than 100 booths, a recycled art contest, critter costume parade, recycled fashion show, kids activities and more. It’s a great way to learn about the small things we can take at home, work school and on the road to improve our local environment. More information at www.envirofair.org
► The Idaho Green Fest, a celebration of all things green, will be held Saturday and Sunday, April 20-21, at the North End Organic Nursery at 2350 W. Hill Road in Boise. The event is free and will feature live music, recycled art, green and sustainable exhibitors, speakers, workshops, and locally soured food and beverage vendors. More information at www.idahogreenfest.org
► The Twin Falls CSI Sustainability Council will be hosting an Earth Day Sustainability Fair on Monday, April 22, from 10 p.m. to 2 p.m. in the Student Union Building. The fair is free to attend and will include vendors from local farms, the CSI environmental tech program, government agencies, and other local businesses, as well as games and prizes. More information at http://sustainability.csi.edu/
► The Idaho Power Integrated Resource Plan Advisory Committee’s next meeting is scheduled for May 9 at Idaho Power’s corporate headquarters. The agenda for the meeting has not yet been posted on the company’s website, but it will include a review of possible “resource portfolios” that are being studied as the utility prepares it every-other-year plan on how it intends to meet future energy demands. For more information and for materials from past meetings, go to http://www.idahopower.com/AboutUs/PlanningForFuture/irp/default.cfm
► The Idaho Public Utilities Commission holds its next decision meetings on April 22, 29, and May 6. Agendas are normally posted the day before on the Commission’s website at www.puc.state.id.us. The meetings typically start at 1:30 p.m.