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Idaho PUC order derails much of Idaho solar generation

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The Idaho Public Utilities Commission on August 20 issued an order that solar power developers warned for months will end most utility-sized solar developments in Idaho. This case has been watched nationwide as utilities like Idaho Power and then Rocky Mountain Power and Avista try to avoid having to purchase electricity under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), passed by Congress in 1978 in response to the nation’s energy crisis and designed to boost the development of renewable energy generation.

While the PUC order does not eliminate the ability of commercial solar companies to build generation projects and try to sell their power to utilities in Idaho or anywhere else, the order presents very high hurdles for solar companies wanting to do business in Idaho. Here’s how the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker described the PUC’s decision:

“The Idaho Public Utilities Commission gave all three of the state’s major electric utilities everything they had asked for in limiting the length of contracts for renewable energy from independent developers last week.

“The commission reduced the length of the contracts to two years from 20 years, nearly ensuring no new contracts under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978 will be signed any time soon.”

That may be an understatement. The Snake River Alliance and other parties argued before the PUC that giving Idaho Power what it wanted, according to news reports, is tantamount to killing utility-scale solar developments in Idaho. The state’s three electric utilities argued they are besieged by solar power developers seeking contracts to sell their power, although to date not a single megawatt of solar generation has been developed (other than the solar panels Idaho homeowners have installed on their rooftops, something utilities are also opposing).

It’s becoming evident much of that proposed solar development will happen outside of Idaho as solar energy developers are packing up and taking their investments to Utah, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Nevada, Washington and Nevada – states that recognize the value of developing clean energy resources and have shown they are able to integrate that power into their grids. Idaho utilities, meanwhile, claim they are incapable of absorbing any more of this clean energy. Neighboring states have laws and regulations that require utilities to provide a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable generation resources (not including large hydropower dams). Idaho does not.

PURPA was enacted to aid the development of smaller renewable generation projects, but as the Idaho Statesman story noted:

“But the PUC went all in with the utilities’ argument, using the full extent of its discretion under the federal law to limit PURPA projects.”

 A key element in this case, argued by the Alliance, the Idaho Conservation League, the Sierra Club and others, was the request by utilities to shorten the life of renewable energy PURPA contracts from the former 20-year terms to the 2 years the utilities won from the PUC. Establishing these contracts is extremely complex and there are ways for renewable energy developers to work out contracts with utilities, but it is undeniable that those options have diminished. Renewable energy entrepreneurs questioned why they should have to sign a 2-year contract on multi-million dollar projects, which is almost impossible to finance in such a short term, while utilities give themselves decades to pay off projects that they build and own and finance through charges to their customers on customer bills.

Solar electricity generation, like many other sources of our energy, cannot be counted on every hour of every day. After all, the sun does set most days. But think about this: Thanks in part to climate change and its resulting impacts on our river systems, our once-dependable hydropower system has become “variable” – the same term used for renewable energy by its critics. The other major source of our electricity in Idaho, coal-fired power plants, is a dying source of electricity. The plants are now money pits sucking your energy dollars to control their emissions – the same energy dollars that should be spent on more sustainable alternatives. Idaho has as robust a solar energy resource as any state in this country. Why would we try to find ways to prop up dirty and moribund energy generation when such exciting alternatives are right in front of us?

As the Statesman reported, utilities got just about all they wanted from the Idaho PUC. Renewable energy developers for the most part lost, and many of them are leaving or will leave Idaho for states more welcoming to clean energy. If you want more green energy to come into your home, as many Idaho utility customers do, this PURPA ruling isn’t going to help. Utilities got the insurance they wanted – that the era of dirty, toxic energy will last a little longer in Idaho.

Finally, we appreciate the efforts so many of you made to contact the PUC. The PUC said it received nearly 200 written comments, and all but 30 opposed the utilities. Those who supported the utilities were mostly local governments and large businesses whose primary objections seemed to be they opposed solar power over traditional generation resources such as coal because it is cheaper – and we strongly disagree with that position. Also, each of the 21 witnesses who turned out for public hearings opposed the utilities’ requests.

We’re gratified for the work you’ve all done on this case, and want to assure you that this is far from over. Idaho cannot choose old, dirty energy over new, cleaner energy!

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