The Idaho Legislature’s 2011 Session finally shut down April 7, but not before stunned clean energy advocates watched as the Senate killed a bill to extend one of Idaho’s few incentives for renewable energy development.

Whether it was because they weren’t paying attention, didn’t do their homework, swallowed the utilities’ anti-renewables sales pitch or all of the above, the Senate by a single vote failed to renew the sales tax rebate law for renewable energy developments, leaving the law to expire this June and take unknown millions of dollars in future energy investments with it.

The Senate vote was all the more surprising given that H347, already seriously diluted through prolonged compromise talks, had easily passed what many assumed would be its toughest test in the House. Anti-wind forces celebrated the defeat of one of the only progressive energy bills to even make it to the House or Senate for a vote. Others had long since been consigned to defeat by virtue of House and Senate committee chairmen refusing to give them hearings.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am,” wind foe Rep. Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls, told the Associated Press. Simpson had already tried and failed to impose a two-year moratorium on new wind projects.

Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, was also quoted by the AP as criticizing the incentive bill as “crafted by people who will enjoy thatrebate” and being “developed by the industries that will benefit” – an unusual criticism given the Legislature’s long history of doing exactly that for such companies as Micron, Albertson’s, and most recently Areva, which demanded a pair of tax-break bills as a condition of its building a dangerous and unnecessary uranium enrichment factory near Idaho Falls.

The unusual turn of events on the renewables bill began with what should have been a routine proposal to extend the sales tax rebate measure, which has been credited with developing Idaho’s renewable energy industry from almost nothing into a formative economic force. But Idaho Power, Avista Utilities and Rocky Mountain Power – three utilities that are also seeking a halt to utility-scale renewable projects at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission – stepped up their pressure against wind and threatened the rebate extension. Bill sponsors Rep. George Eskridge and Sen. Curt McKenzie, who also chair the Legislature’s Interim Energy Committee, agreed to discuss the bill with the utilities, energy developers and the office of Gov. Butch Otter, who voiced no support for extending the energy incentive despite basing part of his 2010 campaign on supporting clean energy.

It was Eskridge, according to the Associated Press and the Idaho Statesman, who reported that he was threatened by an Idaho Power lobbyist with electoral repercussions on the floor of the House if he persisted in pushing his renewables bill.

Ultimately, a bill that allowed a limited number of wind projects to qualify for the rebate if they received PUC approval this fall and that let other renewables use the rebate so long as they were operating by 2014, was agreed upon and passed by the House at session’s end. It was whisked to the Senate Local Government Committee for a quick hearing on the Legislature’s last day and sent upstairs for a floor vote under streamlined, end-of-session rules. That’s where it failed 17-18, with Democratic Sens. Diane Bilyeu of Pocatello and Dan Schmidt of Moscow joining the opposition.

As a result of the vote, the tax rebates for wind and solar not only disappear, but so do those for geothermal, biomass, small hydropower and other renewable resources.

A number of renewable developers had said before the vote that failing to renew the incentive would likely kill the economics of their projects, although as of today none have announced plans to shut down or move their projects elsewhere. In supporting his bill in the Senate committee, Sen.McKenzie said Idaho is already at the bottom of states in the region in policies supporting renewable energy development and that his bill would only modestly improve Idaho’s energy ranking.

Meanwhile, the Legislature passed and Gov. Otter signed four bills designed to reduce hurdles in processing geothermal power development applications on state lands.  But bills to give school districts more leeway in developing their own renewable energy resources and to allow counties to create their own renewable energy commerce authorities were among the clean energy road kill during the session.

That leaves the Legislature to prepare its long-awaited review of the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan,which will be taken up by the House-Senate Interim Energy, Environment, and Technology Committee beginning later this spring or summer and running into the fall. The Legislature spent $300,000 and nearly a year to prepare the plan in 2006, but many of the recommendations have not been implemented, or have been only partly implemented.

The interim panel will soon hold an organizational meeting to outline its course of action, determine who will participate from outside the Legislature, and set its schedule. Several lawmakers say they want the plan revised to reduce its emphasis on things like renewable energy, which the plan rates as Idaho’s top priority energy resource after energy efficiency.

We’ll keep you posted with more news as the interim panel organizes itself and will provide updates on meetings and other opportunities to become involved in what may shape up as a contentious process of amending Idaho’s energy policies.