Power Pickle
By Paul Menser
Idaho Falls Post Register
July 26, 2007

The coal-fired Utah power plant could go kaput, and Idaho Falls could be back at square one.

If Los Angeles succeeds in pulling the plug on a coal-fired power plant in central Utah, Idaho Falls could once again be looking for a stable source of affordable electricity to meet its growing power needs.

City officials say that if a third power plant doesn’t get built at the Intermountain Power Project in Millard County, Utah, they may be forced to buy power after 2012 on the spot market, which can be volatile.

The city’s system is prepared to handle a growing summer load, said Van Ashton, spokesman for Idaho Falls Power, the city-owned utility. But finding the electricity to meet that demand, spurred mainly by air conditioning, is a different story.

“We’re a winter-peaking utility, but Rocky Mountain Power and Idaho Power are summer-peak utilities,” Ashton said. “If they’re short on power, it could have a spillover effect.”

Power availability was the main reason Idaho Falls was keen in 2006 to promote participation in the 900-megawatt IPP-3. City officials argued a piece of IPP-3 would guarantee affordable power and keep them from having to buy power on the spot market.

Voters in November approved the issuance of bonds, and the city is poised to have a 20-megawatt share for $54 million. But since then, Los Angeles and 12 other California cities that hold majority voting rights on the Intermountain Power Agency’s board of directors have blocked IPP-3, opting instead to seek renewable sources, which new California state laws require.

PacifiCorp, which owns Rocky Mountain Power, and the Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems, with which Idaho Falls is affiliated, have threatened a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

“The original intent was for them to operate Unit 3 once it was built,” Ashton said. “If it isn’t built, we’re back to square one again, looking for other resources.”

This isn’t to say that other options won’t be available.
But the main issue is risk, said Tom Leckey of the Energy Information Administration, which compiles energy statistics for the U.S. Government.

A stake in a plant like IPP-3 would represent a highly secure asset in any utility’s energy portfolio. (No one knows better than Los Angeles, which continued to get cheap, stable power from IPP-1 and IPP-2 in 2000 while the rest of California was being gouged and threatened with rolling blackouts.) But there are a growing number of options on the energy market.

“There are all kinds of arrangements, and more products are being offered,” Leckey said.

Changes in regulations are creating a more favorable climate for nuclear power, although the consensus is the first new plant is still years away.

Even longtime foes such as Environmental Defense are softening up on nukes.

“We’re not too crazy about them, but we don’t say, ‘Absolutely not,'” said Jeffrey Greenblatt, a scientist in the organization’s San Francisco office. “It’s a zero-carbon technology that should be on the table.”

But renewable sources such as wind and solar, not to mention conservation, also offer options.

Wind is often tagged as an unsteady source of base load power, but large-scale bulk storage technology has the potential to eliminate that argument.

“It’s gaining some interest,” Greenblatt said. “I wouldn’t say it’s the next big thing.”

In the end, the greatest resource could be people’s ability to solve problems.

“I think it’s going to take some creative rethinking about the way we get our electricity,” he said.