After a nightlong public hearing, a day and a half technical hearing, nearly 200 written comments and a 1,118-signature petition, the fate of solar power development in Idaho is now in the hands of two Public Utilities Commission members.
The PUC was told repeatedly over the past two weeks that its decision in a case brought by Idaho Power and then joined by Avista and Rocky Mountain Power will determine whether utility-scale solar generation from smaller, private developers can get off the ground before it even begins in Idaho. Currently, and despite utility entreaties to the PUC to spare them from a perceived (but not realized) onslaught of solar projects, there are no solar projects in the state. The PUC will decide whether that changes, or whether Idaho remains alone in discouraging this future of electricity generation.
The case is IPC-E-15-01, brought by Idaho Power, which wants to shorten the terms of contracts with solar developers from 20 years to 2, or 3, or maybe 5. Terms this short make it all but impossible for developers to finance their projects. Utilities give themselves 20, 30, or more years to pay off projects when they build them, so the stakes with the pending PUC decision are clear. Utilities, stakeholders, and utility customers wound down a long and very contentious hearing process July 30. PUC Chairman Paul Kjellander said he hopes the Commission can wrap it up by the end of this month. There are now two PUC members to make the decision, following the death of Commissioner Mack Redford on June 30, the night of the last public hearing in this case (see below).
The case involves the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA), which Congress passed during the energy crisis in 1978 to encourage development of smaller renewable energy projects just like those being litigated in Idaho. Utilities complain the law forces them to buy power they don’t need; renewable developers and many utility customers counter that the utilities are trying to stack the deck against them by trying to derail these PURPA projects while at the same time building their own. Utilities don’t make a profit when they buy clean power from a wind or solar project. They make money while at the same time charging bill-payers when they build their own, old-fashioned power generation.
Each of the 22 Idahoans who testified at the June 24 PUC public hearing opposed the utilities’ stop-renewables campaign. There were 193 written comments to the PUC in the case, and on July 6 a petition bearing 1,118 signatures was placed into the record in the case. The names weren’t only from Idaho Power customers, but from utility customers around the state and places like Almo, Deary, and St. Maries.
Utility customers from all over took the trouble to come to Boise to address the PUC. One of them, Aimee Christensen, CEO of Ketchum-based Christensen Global Strategies and chair of the Ketchum Energy Advisory Committee and co-founder of the Sun Valley Institute for Resilience, backed up her testimony with a powerful op-ed to the Idaho Statesman, which you can find here.
Reporter George Prentice kicked off his news story in the Boise Weekly like this:
“Journalists and historians may look back on the evening of Wednesday, June 24, when writing about whether Idaho leans more toward greater dependence on renewable energy resources – particularly solar …”
You can read the utilities’ requests and all the testimony and other documents, as well as each of those public comments, by going to the Idaho Power case on PUC website here.