Thanks to the hard work by our clean energy community and a changing culture at the state’s largest power company, Idaho Power is writing a plan to retire some of its coal-fired power plants a decade ahead of schedule and to replace that polluting generation with cleaner alternatives.

Idaho Power is putting the final touches on its 2015 Integrated Resource Plan (IRP), which must be prepared every other year and which serves as a roadmap on how the state’s largest electric utility plans to meet its energy needs for the next 20 years.

After nearly a year of work, Idaho Power’s Integrated Resource Plan Advisory Council (IRPAC) held its final meeting on June 4. The company plans to submit its IRP to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission by the end of June. Then, the PUC will hold a lengthy public review and comment period before deciding whether to “accept” the plan, probably in the fall. The PUC does not “approve” the nonbinding IRP, but its acceptance signals the Commission finds the plan reasonable.

This IRP comes at a time when Idaho Power has abundant supplies of energy and, for now, no need from its perspective to build new generation projects. This round of the IRP process has been underway since August 2014. For the past 11 months, the company has held meetings and workshops with those on its advisory council and, just as important, with a variety of other stakeholders and interested parties who have provided input during the course of the plan.

North Valmy, Nevada

North Valmy coal-fired generating station, Nevada, is slated for early retirement

A synopsis of the 2015 IRP’s highlights.

  • Early retirement of both North Valmy coal plants between Winnemucca and Battle Mountain, NV, in 2025. Idaho Power currently receives about 260 megawatts of electricity as its 50-50 partnership with NV Energy. The plants went into service in 1981 and 1985. Their retirement is long overdue!
  • Because 260MW is a considerable chunk of Idaho Power’s overall generation, it will need to be replaced by something to make up the difference. Most of that something, according to this IRP, is the proposed high-voltage Boardman to Hemingway (B2H) transmission line that would run from Idaho Power’s Hemingway substation near Melba in Owyhee County to near Boardman, OR, along the Columbia River. The idea is to provide additional transmission capacity to and from southwest Idaho and the wind-rich Pacific Northwest. Idaho Power’s highest demand is during the summer months while the Pacific Northwest’s highest demand is in winter, so the ability to move energy back and forth to meet regional needs makes sense. Most of the power that would be sent to Idaho (and to make up for the lost coal plants) is renewable energy. However, this combination of shutting down the coal and replacing it with cleaner alternatives depends on B2H going online in 2025, the same year the coal plants would be retired.
  • Because the coal plants would be retired early, they will not have been fully paid for. As a result their depreciation must be accelerated over a shorter period, and that likely means an undetermined bump in utility bills. However, Idaho Power believes this “portfolio,” one of 24 it analyzed for things such as cost and risk, made the most sense. There will be costs for the decommissioning, including for demolition, but there are also savings for such things as eliminating fuel costs and avoiding future environmental requirements. Over the long haul, any increase in our electricity bills would be more than offset by the longer-term savings from retiring the plants.
  • While the IRP does not commit to any community solar pilot projects sought by the Alliance and other clean energy advocates, it does discuss a possible future role for community solar, which is the concept of installing a solar generation project and allowing customers to purchase shares of its output, which in turn allows them to deduct that amount from their bill while receiving more clean energy than nonparticipants. These projects are popping up nationwide and are particularly attractive for utility customers who want green power but for various reasons cannot install it on their roofs.

An “ice-based” thermal energy storage pilot is envisioned in the future. The technology creates ice during times of cheaper power rates and using it during times of higher rates for daytime air-conditioning. One of the nation’s leading developers of this technology is Ice Bear, and you can learn more about the technology here.

  • Idaho Power wants to scrap a proposed 50MW additional turbine in its Shoshone Falls dam powerhouse near Twin Falls. It is considering instead a much smaller (1.7 MW to 4 MW) addition to the existing 12.5 MW turbine. Among the reasons are that Shoshone Falls generation is greatest during high Snake River flows, as opposed to the summer months, when electricity demand is highest but when much of the Snake River is diverted for irrigation.

There is much more, including eventual construction of the 1,100-mile, high-voltage Gateway West transmission line from Wyoming across southern Idaho to the Hemingway substation, and of course additional non-generation or “demand-side management” resources as energy efficiency.

The coal plants are unquestionably the headline in this plan.

Idaho Power is already ending its modest, 64 MW share of the 550 MW Boardman coal plant in Oregon after the primary owner, Portland General Electric, struck an agreement in 2010 to shutter the plant by the end of 2020. The company still has a 33 percent share of the four-unit Jim Bridger Plant near Point of Rocks in Wyoming, while majority owner PacifiCorp owns the other two-thirds and operates the plant. Idaho Power gets about 700 MW from Jim Bridger, making it the company’s largest coal asset.

Two Jim Bridger units are being retrofitted with extremely expensive pollution controls, while a decision on whether to make a similar investment in the other two units won’t need to be made until 2017. The Alliance fought the installation of the controls in the first two units, arguing that retiring the plants, as with Boardman in Oregon, made more sense from a cost and risk standpoint. Our opposition to the emission controls stemmed from our opposition to putting bill-payers on the hook for huge investments to prop up dirty old coal plants. If Idaho Power pursues retrofitting the other two Bridger units, we’ll fight that as well. The plant owners will have a much harder sell to gain regulatory approval and stick bill-payers with the tab, as is happening with the first round of control installation.

Remember, those multimillion-dollar anti-pollution controls do nothing to address emissions of climate-changing greenhouse gases, as the technology to do so has not been developed for large power plants. And that gets to the heart of why Idaho Power may join the ever-growing club of utilities that are shuttering their coal plants.

Reasons behind the nationwide coal plant march to the scrap yard.

Chief among the drivers of coal plant obsolescence are a suite of existing and proposed federal environmental regulations. The first was a crackdown on emissions of mercury and other air toxics, which prompted the whopping $130 million Jim Bridger installation we discussed earlier. Many utilities shut plants down rather than plow more bill-payer dollars into these aging power plants. Another driver is the proposed regulation known as “Rule 111(d)” in the federal Clean Air Act, which is the centerpiece of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan to address greenhouse gas emissions from existing coal plants.

A final version of that rule is expected in August, although Congressional Republicans and even some coal-state Democrats have already vowed to kill the greenhouse gas rule by ordering EPA not to implement it while at the same time eliminating any funding to do. That battle is far from being resolved, however. Rule 111(d) will require states to develop compliance plans to achieve EPA-established greenhouse gas reduction targets, which are different for all states. In an act of prudence, states such as Idaho that claim EPA’s proposed emissions-reduction rule is illegal are simultaneously crafting their individual plans to comply with it.

Combined, these regulations, along with others requiring emission reductions to combat regional haze and to deal with toxic coal ash resulting from combustion and still others addressing water quality, are already writing coal generation’s obituary for good reason and better late than never. The plants are the largest stationary sources of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and among our worst public health threats. Still, some utilities fighting the long-overdue rules continue their discredited claim that eliminating devastating impacts to health and the environment caused by these power plants is too expensive if it means raising customer bills, which as we’ve now seen in Idaho Power’s draft IRP is not the case.

We’ll be keeping you up-to-date in the coming months on how Idaho Power’s surprising IRP progresses after it is finalized and sent to the PUC and how you can have your voice heard on the issue of coal plant retirements and myriad other important issues included in the plan.

We remain cautiously optimistic.

While this is mostly a good-news story and as optimistic as many of us are about putting a coal plant out of business ahead of schedule, we need to remember that all is not rainbows and unicorns when it comes to Idaho Power’s commitment to a cleaner energy menu.

Clean energy advocates, renewable energy businesses and developers, and for that matter anyone wanting a greener utility continue to be at odds with Idaho Power and the other two electric utilities that joined its PUC case over what we view as a campaign against solar power. Idaho Power is asking the PUC to limit utility scale solar project contracts from the current 20 years to a mere 2 years (in contrast to the 30-plus years the company allows itself when it builds its own power plants). If the PUC grants the request, utility-sized solar in Idaho will come to a screeching halt before it even gets out of the starting gate. The public hearing is on June 24 at 7 pm at the PUC in Boise, and we need to pack the room with clean energy supporters.

The Snake River Alliance, which serves on Idaho Power’s IRPAC, has prepared a number of reports, fact sheets, and other documents on Idaho’s use of coal generation and how we can wean ourselves and our utilities off of coal and toward clean alternatives. Check them out here.