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Ken Miller: It’s time for Idaho to clean up its dependence on coal power


Published: August 12, 2012



Idaho’s big electric utilities are beginning the important job, undertaken every other year, of updating plans to meet customer demand for electricity over the next two decades.

Our utilities will begin deciding whether to join those nationwide already dumping coal plants for cleaner alternatives, or whether to continue pouring hundreds of millions of customer dollars into aging coal plants to comply with environmental laws closing in on them.

Idaho utilities use coal plants to varying degrees and depending on things such as hydropower conditions. Avista gets 15 percent of its power from a Montana coal plant; Idaho Power gets about 40 percent of its power from Oregon, Nevada, and Wyoming plants; and PacifiCorp uses 26 coal plants for 60 percent of its power. Idaho, the state many believe is energized by clean hydropower, uses dirty, imported coal power for nearly half its electricity on average.

There are ample reasons for these utilities to replace coal with abundant, affordable, homegrown Idaho energy. It’s no longer in dispute that our coal plants can shorten the lives and foul the environment of those in their shadows. But if moral or ethical arguments don’t compel action, consider the economic ones.

Once touted as cheap and reliable, coal is an economic loser, pushed to the margins by cheaper natural gas, competitive energy efficiency and renewable energy, and the regulatory freight train bearing down on our utilities. The reason the nation’s largest power companies are shedding coal is less about a moral imperative and more about realizing states and the federal government are cracking down on coal emissions.

It’s called risk, and it’s what utilities pile onto customers and shareholders the longer they cling to coal. Wall Street and the investment community have voted: Coal-based utilities are toxic investments.

The Snake River Alliance has worked for more than a year to shine a light on the extent of Idaho’s coal dependence and the impacts for customers. We reported on the breadth of the problem in our initial report last year ( On Thursday, the day of the first Idaho Power Integrated Resource Plan Advisory Council (IRPAC) meeting, we will report on the economic impacts of utility coal investments and how the energy from retired coal plants can be replaced.

Nobody suggests Idaho utilities dump coal overnight, and contrary to the inaccurate public assertions of Idaho Power, the Snake River Alliance has never advocated replacing coal with wind power, because the two have different generation profiles.

The same things that forced the early retirement of the Boardman coal plant in Oregon exist for the coal plants used by Idaho’s utilities: The plants are a health menace; they can never be cleaned up enough to meaningfully reduce their greenhouse gas emissions; and they are economic time bombs that will saddle utility customers with unnecessary additional costs. They may seem “cheap” today, but far-sighted utilities have concluded otherwise and are cutting their losses.

More coal generation was identified for early retirement nationwide in the past year than ever before and domestic coal consumption has cratered. Why, then, are Idaho customer dollars being plowed back into geriatric, high-maintenance coal plants?

To their credit, Idaho Power and PacifiCorp are studying their coal assets to see if it’s better to continue propping them up or to plan for their retirement. That’s a big first step and one that will be watched closely to see if the studies pass muster. The alliance will be part of that monitoring, despite the fact that Idaho Power has taken the unusual step of kicking the alliance off its IRPAC after years of participation because it was offended by the alliance’s public education campaign on coal power in Idaho.

The reality is, every utility that burns coal is under pressure to clean up its act, and now so are Idaho’s. The alliance’s campaign is a manifestation of what is happening in nearly every state around the country. Idaho utility customers will know soon whether our utilities get it.

Ken Miller is the clean energy program director at the Snake River Alliance.

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