With two of the Northwest’s dirty coal plants now scheduled for early retirement, clean energy advocates are turning their sites to eastern Montana’s mammoth Colstrip power plant, which generates a big chunk of electricity for the region, including the largest utility serving northern Idaho. Meanwhile, the Idaho PUC is taking comments on Idaho Power’s bid to place about $400 million of the costs to build the Langley Gulch natural gas plant near New Plymouth into your rates. The PUC has also released its information-rich 2011 Annual Report, and the developers of the much-litigated Payette County nuclear power plant have yet another lawsuit to worry about, this one by potential neighbors of the power plant who say the county’s approval process was flawed and that power plant developers used the process to reel in investor cash. For information on these developments and a look at what’s coming up, read on. Thanks as always, and if you have any calendar items, please send them along!
Clean Energy Program Director
Snake River Alliance
I: Another Northwest Utility Coal Plant Comes Under Scrutiny
Pacific Northwest utilities and coal plant owners last year announced plans to retire two of the region’s dirty coal-fired power plants well ahead of their scheduled service lives, and now a third plant has drawn the attention of regional clean-air advocates who say it’s is a relic and a public health menace whose time has long passed.
Like many power plants that are too large for a single utility to use, the huge Colstrip plant in eastern Montana provides generation to multiple utilities, including Spokane-based Avista Utilities, which serves parts of northern Idaho and which used a minority share of Colstrip’s output. The primary target of efforts to shutter Colstrip is Washington’s Puget Sound Energy, which is the largest single owner of the plant, which is also owned by four other Northwest utilities and Pennsylvania Power and Light. The West’s largest coal plant, Colstrip’s power output is greater than that of the Boardman plant in Oregon and the Centralia plant in Washington combined. Both of those plants are scheduled for decommissioning around 2020, well ahead of their projected retirements in 2030-2040.
Utilities nationwide but particularly here in the Northwest are under growing pressure to reduce and eventually eliminate their reliance on coal to generate electricity. The three electric utilities that serve Idaho customers – Idaho Power, Rocky Mountain Power, and Avista – have been reluctant to embrace the trend away from coal, which is driven by public health, environmental and climate reasons as well as the fact that coal-fired power plants are quickly becoming economic dinosaurs that pose huge financial and regulatory risks to utilities, their customers, and shareholders.
The Sierra Club, which along with other regional clean energy advocates was a part of the drive to close Boardman and Centralia early, is leading the “Coal-Free PSC” campaign to get Puget Sound Energy to commit to closing Colstrip early. “Our vision is for a coal-free Northwest,” the Sierra Club said in announcing the campaign. “And the Colstrip plant is the primary barrier to the brighter, cleaner future. We need your help in sending a message to Puget Sound Energy that there is a better way than this 19th Century technology that is the dirtiest of fossil fuels.”
Beyond the Northwest, utilities nationwide are shedding their coal assets as they brace for state, regional and national regulations to crack down on coal plant emissions. In Idaho, the Snake River Alliance last year launched a campaign to get the state’s big three electric utilities to begin planning to phase out their coal operations and replace the plants with clean energy resources including energy efficiency and renewables, which have been identified by myriad studies and by the Northwest Power and Conservation Council as adequate to meet new energy needs and to begin phasing out coal. The Alliance’s initial report, “Idaho’s Dangerous Dalliance with King Coal,” was issued last fall and can be downloaded from www.snakeriveralliance.org
For more information on the Colstrip-PSE campaign, go to www.facebook.com/CoalFreePSE
II: PUC Opens Public Comments on Putting Idaho Power’s Big Gas Plant Costs in Rates
The Public Utilities Commission is taking public comments through May 30 on an application by Idaho Power to put nearly $400 million in costs associated with its Langley Gulch natural gas plant into customer rates. The PUC, which in 2009 granted Idaho Power a certificate agreeing that the power plant is necessary, must still approve the company’s putting the cost into rates for all customers to pay for the plant. Some groups, including the Snake River Alliance and other environmental groups, as well as Idaho Power’s industrial customers, questioned whether the utility had established the need for the new power plant at this time.
The company isn’t asking that the entire amount be collected from customers at once, but rather in increments after the plant goes online this summer. Still, if the PUC grants the request, it would raise rates by an average 7.1 percent, which is a much larger increase than the one Idaho Power says it should be allowed to pass along to customers to offset added costs of wind power.
“Idaho Power requests that its annual revenues be increased by $59,869,823 to recover its capital investment in the Langley plant as well as recover other plant expenses such as depreciation, taxes and operational costs,” the PUC said in an order. “The company proposes to recover this increased annual revenue requirement in rates by a uniform percentage increase of 7.18 percent to all customer classes … or a 7.1 percent increase in total current billed revenues.”
To review Idaho Power’s application and other documents in this case, go to www.puc.idaho.gov and click “File Room” and then “Electric Cases” and scroll to IPC-E-12-14.
III: PUC Issues 2011 Annual Report on Utility Regulations
The Public Utilities Commission has posted its 2011 Annual Report on its website, making available a detailed compendium of the PUC’s actions and utility developments during the year.
The report includes an introduction and discussion of how the PUC works, as well as chapters on the PUC’s regulatory authority, including electricity, natural gas, water, telecommunications, rail and consumer assistance information. It also features a breakdown of the various kinds of utilities by city.
The chapter on electricity issues begins, fittingly, with a lengthy discussion of the ongoing controversy over wind power development and utility complaints that they are being forced to purchase the output of small wind projects, even when they don’t need the electricity. Those complaints are denied by wind power developers who say their energy is actually a better deal for utilities and their customers than, for instance, the $400 million natural gas power plant that Idaho Power is building near New Plymouth.
The report also includes a case-by-case examination of the big dockets the PUC has handled over the year. It can be found on the Commission’s website at www.puc.idaho.gov and on the home page in the “Hot” section in the upper right-hand corner.
IV: Another Lawsuit Against Would-Be Nuke Plant Developer
Another lawsuit has been filed against the would-be developers of a nuclear power plant in Payette County – this time by county residents who also blamed county officials for signing off on the controversial proposal without adequately vetting it.
Residents living near the proposed reactor site sued developer Alternate Energy Holdings, Inc., as well as Payette County over the besieged project, which is mired in court fights and still lacks the financing needed to build a power plant. A civil class action lawsuit against AEHI was settled recently when the company agreed to pay $450,000 to investors who claimed the company defrauded them. Meanwhile, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission has a pending stock fraud suit against AEHI, alleging the company and its principal officers engaged in stock fraud, including manipulating the price of AEHI stock to enrich themselves.
In this most recent case, the Boise law firm Mauk & Burgoyne claimed on behalf of their clients that the county’s approvals of the AEHI project was illegal. The suit doesn’t seek money damages, but rather an injunction against any further action to enforce what plaintiffs say are illegal actions by the county. The 3rd District Court suit also alleges that AEHI executives, including CEO Don Gillispie and former executive Jennifer Ransom, used the illegal county zoning and permit approvals to raise cash from private stock sales.
On The Agenda: