If the Snake River Alliance has said it once, we’ve said it a million times: Idaho’s misguided reliance on coal-fired power plants for half its electricity is not only bad energy policy, it’s also a health and environmental disaster. Now it’s in writing in our new reportIdaho’s Dangerous Dalliance with King Coal.

That’s why the Alliance has issued its newest report, “Idaho’s Dangerous Dalliance with King Coal,” a paper that sets the stage for the Alliance’s new Energy Efficiency vs. Coal campaign. We start with what for some in Idaho is a revelation – that for all the hydroelectric power around the state and plugged into Idaho utility grids, Idaho still relies on dirty and dangerous coal-fired power plants for nearly half its electricity. The report lays out the sheer volume of coal-fired generation that finds its way into Idaho through our three major electric utilities.

In an era in which coal plants are being retired at unprecedented rates, many before their scheduled decommissioning dates, Idaho is at a crossroads in its electricity choices. Most of its electricity consumers are served today by utilities that are heavily invested in coal plants. Those utilities are poised to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on anti-pollution measures just to keep their coal plants legal, dollars that would be recovered primarily through increases in Idahoans’ power bills. And every dollar that is spent on Band-Aid measures to keep dirty power plants in compliance with the law – when they could be retired ahead of schedule just like scores of others are elsewhere – is a dollar diverted from far cheaper energy efficiency measures that can go a long way in replacing the coal. The reasons for sharply reducing and eventually eliminating Idaho’s coal consumption are manifest, but for starters include the known threats these power plants inflict on human health, air and water quality, and the natural environment. The immense risk coal plants pose to utility customers when the federal government imposes the inevitable economic price on greenhouse gas emissions should also drive us toward eliminating coal consumption.

Idaho’s three big utilities import varying amounts of coal-fired power to serve their Idaho loads. Avista uses the least by far, about 10 to 15 percent. Then comes Idaho Power at 40 to 45 percent. And then comes PacifiCorp, which does business in Idaho as Rocky Mountain Power, at a whopping 60 to 65 percent. The irony is that many in Idaho point with pride at a wobbly statistic that says the Gem State has the smallest per capita carbon “footprint” of all the states. But that’s only because each and every one of the 29 coal plants that produce electricity for these three utilities are located in other states. The result is that, while Idaho does not have a coal-fired electricity plant, it exports the environmental and health impacts to the states where the plants happen to be located. Just as ominous for these utilities, Idaho is not an island. It may be taking an ineffective let-the-market-handle-it approach to reducing carbon emissions, but most of its neighbors are not. And each of these utilities happen to do business in states that are moving forward in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The longer the coal problem is ignored, the more expensive will be the inevitable divorce.

Why would a utility invest a dollar to prop up an aging coal plant when that same dollar would get much more mileage invested in energy efficiency that prevents the need for additional dirty power plants? Well, coal plants have always been fast and easy to build and stick into your electric rates. But the truth is, utilities that invest heavily in coal face huge economic risks as the time approaches when emissions from coal plants will be capped or taxed, and as utilities must meet ever-more-stringent environmental regulations and state requirements to add more renewable energy to their mixes. So King Cole’s days are numbered. Oregon and Washington each have one coal plant apiece, and both are now scheduled to be retired around 2020 – twenty years or more before they were scheduled for shutdown. It’s not just a western phenomenon, either. Utilities in the coal-heavy Midwest and East are announcing early decommissioning of coal plants and cancelling plans for new ones. They have become an energy albatross, saddling utilities and you, the customer, with mounting environmental mitigation costs.

Still, Idaho utilities have resisted planning for life after coal even as their colleagues get out of the business. Their resource power plans call for dumping staggering sums of ratepayer dollars into coal plants just to keep them huffing and puffing. Meanwhile, their customers and even their shareholders are demanding change in the way utilities get their power. Customers want their utilities to green up their energy portfolios, and as the economic argument in support of coal falls apart, the argument for energy efficiency and renewable energy gets stronger.

Digging up and then burning coal to boil water to spin a turbine to make electricity may have seemed like a great idea in 1950, when many of these plants were built. But it has no place in the carbon-constrained world that is closing in on Idaho whether its policy makers and utilities know it or not.

Idahoans are beginning to demand their utilities figure out how to drop coal plant generation. Smart utilities across the United States have already shown that decommissioning coal plants is no longer a radical idea or one that must mean higher electricity prices. Each state and each utility market is admittedly different, and each has its own opportunities and challenges when it comes to energy choices. Idaho isn’t immune from the challenges, but progressive utilities have shown they can be overcome with a clean energy vision rather than today’s business as usual.

Idaho’s Dangerous Dalliance with King Coal, available for download from our web site,  describes the problem. It will be followed shortly before the 2012 Legislative Session with a detailed roadmap that helps plot the course away from Idaho’s coal dependence and toward a cleaner energy future. That future is now.