When Brian Jackson's cellphone rang Dec. 13, 2010, something he'd chased for three years seemed within reach. The wiry engineer had invested his life savings in Rainbow Ranch, a pair of wind farms that average 10 megawatts, each capable of powering some 8,400 homes a year. He hoped to build them in southern Idaho, between Pocatello and Twin Falls.
"My goal was to help people stay on the land," says Jackson, 46, whose family has farmed in Idaho for a century. He expected to pay off the debts of the approximately $70 million project in about 15 years, then earn several million a year, half of which would go to the landowner. "Wind is a huge asset to a farmer. They can make a little money and keep working the land."
All Jackson needed was a contract with Idaho Power, the state's largest utility. So he was delighted when the company's contracts coordinator called: Could Jackson pick up the contract, or should he mail it?
Jackson raced to downtown Boise. With one kid in college and four younger ones, he had a lot to lose. But a little-known federal law minimized the risk. The Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act, or PURPA, passed on the heels of the 1970s energy crisis, requires utilities to purchase power from small alternative projects like Rainbow Ranch. It seemed Jackson's gamble was about to pay off.
He gave the contract one last read and handed it back before the day was out. "It was almost like Christmas Day," he recalls, trailing off into a rare silence: "We were so close. …"
What Jackson didn't know that day was that Idaho Power was closing its doors to wind and solar. Idaho is the toughest place in the West for renewable energy. Other states, aside from Utah and Wyoming, have adopted renewable portfolio standards to lower climate-changing emissions. Those policies require utilities to include a certain percentage of renewable energy in their power mix. Accompanied by federal tax breaks, they've created a market for wind and solar. But Idaho's overwhelming Republican majority is apathetic about climate change and wary of raising electricity rates. A renewable portfolio standard died several years ago while only in a legislative committee.
PURPA promised wind developers a market. But in 2010, at the request of Idaho Power and two other major utilities, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission lowered the 10-average-megawatt size limit for PURPA contracts enough that no commercial project would qualify, effectively blocking the only path for wind and solar. The change would take effect Dec. 14, a deadline Jackson thought he'd beaten. But Idaho Power waited three days to sign and submit the contract to the state utility commission. By then, contracts were only guaranteed for projects under 100-kilowatts -- a size at which commercial projects aren't viable.
That sank Rainbow Ranch and 14 other wind farms. Jackson lost his investment and money from friends and family -- $500,000 altogether. Last July, before he landed a job with a mining company, his phone and utilities were cut off. "I just never saw a scenario where (Idaho Power would) stonewall us to the very end," he confesses.
Today, Jackson is among a small band of clean energy advocates attempting to force the utility to embrace renewables. In March, they acquired a powerful ally: For the first time, the federal government sued a state for failing to enforce PURPA. But changing Idaho Power won't be easy.
"The (renewable) investment atmosphere in Idaho is the worst in the Western U.S.," says Peter Richardson, a Boise attorney who represents wind developers and Idaho Power's industrial customers. "It's almost hostile."