Idaho Energy Update
Sept. 5, 2008
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will soon consider holding workshops to address the growing challenge of Idahoans struggling to pay soaring electricity and gas bills. The PUC has been asked by its staff to open a case to explore ways to provide relief to those facing rate increases coming at them so fast they’re struggling to cope, or are facing late fees, disconnects, or other repercussions. Meanwhile, The Elmore County Planning and Zoning Commission is planning on multiple hearings in October as it prepares to review a rezoning request by developers of a proposed nuclear reactor above the Snake River south of Mountain Home. For details on these and other developments, please read on.
Thanks as always, and if you have any calendar items, please send them my way!
Clean Energy Program Director
Snake River Alliance
I: PUC Staff Recommends Workshops on Energy Affordability
The Public Utilities Commission has been asked by its staff to consider opening a new case to examine how hard-pressed Idahoans are coping with soaring energy costs – and how they’ll continue to struggle with them in the future.
In a memo to the Commission in advance of its regular decision meeting Monday and made available with today’s online publication of Monday’s agenda, PUC staff member Beverly Barker submitted a two-page memo that concluded with the question posed to the Commission: “Does the Commission wish to initiate a formal generic case and schedule workshops for the purpose of examining issues surrounding energy affordability and customers’ ability to pay energy bills?”
That’s a huge question and one weighing heavily on the minds of thousands of Idaho families facing repeated rate increases, particularly for electrical and natural gas costs.
Barker’s memo to the Commission painted a stark picture of the energy challenges facing many Idahoans.
“A variety of factors are contributing to an unrelenting and significant upward pressure on electric and natural gas rates in Idaho,” she wrote. “Unfortunately, this is occurring during an economic downturn. Energy affordability has become a central issue for many Idaho households and businesses, and utilities are facing the prospect of more customers being unable o pay their energy bills in full and/or on time. Customers who are unemployed, have lower incomes, and/or have fixed incomes that fail to keep pace with inflation are disproportionately affected by rising energy costs, since they must devote an increasingly larger share of their income to paying for natural gas and electricity.”
Barker told the Commission that PUC staff recommends opening a case and scheduling workshops to examine these and other issues. While she said similar concerns are affecting commercial customers as well, the focus for now should be on residential customers.
Avista Corp., which serves much of the Idaho Panhandle, has already agreed to participate in such workshops as part of earlier PUC cases. Because the problem is statewide, however, staff is recommending Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power, as well as Intermountain Gas, be made parties to the case. Staff also suggests inviting key consumer advocacy organizations such as the Community Action Partnerships of Idaho, Idaho Community Action Network, and the AARP as parties.
If the Commission agrees, the workshops could include such issues as: Payment plans for customers facing higher bills than they can afford; bill payment assistance; bill reduction proposals such as discounts and reduced rates; and barriers to getting or keeping service, such as deposits and how to handle late payments that can lead to service cut-offs.
“The objective would be to identify new programs, policies, procedures, and/or resources that could be adopted or used to address energy affordability,” Barker wrote. “To the extent possible, the costs and benefits of proposed solutions would be identified.”
This issue is long overdue for attention not only by the PUC but by policymakers in the Legislature and in the executive branch. Energy costs are fast becoming one of the most urgent crises facing many Idahoans. Previous efforts to address some possible remedies, such as setting different rates for lower-income Idahoans have failed to gain traction in the Idaho Legislature and in fact were removed from the new state energy plan by lawmakers who said the state had no business getting involved in helping low income energy customers.
Now, finally, the problem may get the attention it deserves. While the matter is on the Commission’s Monday agenda, commissioners might or might not discuss it when they meet at 1:30 p.m. at the PUC headquarters Hearing Room at 472 West Washington Street in Boise.
II: Elmore P&Z Sets Oct. Hearings on Nuke Plant Rezone Application
The Elmore County Planning and Zoning Commission is now planning a series of hearings in October on Alternate Energy Holdings’ request to rezone more than 1,300 acres of prime Snake River agricultural land to heavy industrial for its proposed nuclear reactor.
Details are still being ironed out, but the series of hearings are tentatively scheduled to begin Oct. 8 in Mountain Home, followed by hearings on Oct. 22, 29 and Nov. 5. The dates could change, and we’ll keep you posted on details. The hearings will likely be separated for the developer, AEHI, followed by one for groups and one for individuals in opposition, and finally one for the developer to rebut opponents. AEHI filed its rezoning application on Aug. 13, and Elmore County P&Z officials have been meeting to determine how to handle what is expected to be almost-unprecedented public interest and involvement.
Meanwhile, Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman Scott Burnell said it would be unusual for AEHI to be allowed to submit federally required meteorological data (remember, AEHI applied to build two “met” towers in Owyhee County and built those towers without a valid permit in Owyhee County) without providing information from the new reactor site. The NRC requires extensive wind and other meteorological data when considering an application for a reactor at a specific site, so AEHI will almost certainly have to apply to Elmore County for a permit to construct those towers to collect a year’s worth of data for the new site. Elmore County officials have yet to receive such an application.
Finally, the NRC said it has never heard of a proposed nuclear reactor that plans – as AEHI says it wants to do – to add a secondary power production facility to its project.
“I’m not aware of any other reactor in the United States that has even contemplated that kind of activity,” Burnell said when asked about AEHI CEO Don Gillispie’s claim that he’ll find another way to create energy from his power plant.
III: Idaho Power Offers Free Educational Resource Guide for Teachers
Idaho Power says its 2008-2009 Educational Resource Guide is available free to teachers in the company’s service territory.
“The annual publication provides an overview of resources, including in-school presentations, videos, educational kits, guided tours and teaching unties from the company’s loan library,” the company said in a release. “This year a new classroom presentation, ‘Simple Ways to Save Energy,’ teaches students about conserving our energy resources and creating a reliable, responsible energy future. The interactive presentation includes energy saving tips, a family home energy audit and other tools to learn how to use energy wisely and why it is important.”
Teachers can send an e-mail to [email protected] or go to www.idahopower.com and then the “About Us” and “Community” and “Public Education Materials.”
IV: PUC Looks at Avista Gas, Electric Rate Hikes
The Public Utilities Commission is taking comments through Sept. 23 on a request from Avista Utilities to boost its natural gas surcharge by about 14 percent – a request that if granted would raise average gas bills for the company’s northern Idaho customers by about $10. The company said gas reserves were sapped by this year’s cooler-than-average spring, as well as declining Canadian imports and international competition for liquefied natural gas.
Avista already has a separate request to increase its base rates by about 12 percent for electricity and 4.7 percent for natural gas. The electric rate increase was attributed in large part to the company’s investments to upgrade two hydropower projects, transmission upgrades, and improvements at a coal plant.
In addition, the PUC is taking comments through Sept. 17 on Avista’s request to increase its electrical surcharge by 5.4 percent, or $3.43 a month for the average residential customer, to offset higher-than-expected costs paid to power suppliers due to reduced hydroelectric generation.
“For Avista customers, this is one of those years when there is a double whammy of both a permanent rate increase on top of the annual Power Cost Surcharge request,” PUC President Mack Redford said. “Idaho, unfortunately, is not immune from the rapid increases we’re witnessing nationwide in the wholesale gas markets. And to compound the problem, we’re seeing reduced hydro generation.”
For more information on the requests, go to www.puc.idaho.gov. To review the gas request, go to “Gas Cases” and then to AVU-G-08-03. For the electric case, go to “Electric Cases” and then to AVU-E-08-05.
On the Agenda:
► The Idaho Public Utilities Commission holds its next decision meetings on Sept. 8, 15, 22, and 29. Agendas are normally posted the day before on the Commission’s website at www.puc.state.id.us
► The Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service will be taking public comments through Sept. 19 on the multi-agency programmatic environmental impact statement (PEIS) to expedite geothermal leasing on federal lands. BLM and USFS held a workshop in Boise on July 21 to discuss their geothermal leasing program, and they’ll continue to solicit public input on issues that need to be explored as the agencies consider geothermal leases on western lands in the future. More than 50 people turned out for the Boise meeting – twice the attendance of any prior meetings! For more information, go to: http://www.blm.gov/wo/st/en/prog/energy/geothermal/geothermal_nationwide.html
► The Idaho Legislature’s Energy, Environment & Technology Interim Committee will meet from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Sept. 17 and then from 8 a.m. to noon on Sept. 18 at the Capitol Annex in Room 204 in Boise. The agenda has not been determined; we’ll advise as soon as it is.