Idaho Power is waging war on renewable energy. Is it winning?

One of the West's great old-school monopolies and its multi-pronged attack on wind and solar.

  • Idaho, minus wind turbines. (Photo illustration)

    HCN staff/Idaho Tourism
  • Wind entrepreneur Brian Jackson lost big when Idaho Power pulled the plug on wind projects.

    Brian Jackson
  • Clean energy advocate -- and Idaho Power shareholder -- Kiki Tidwell (shown heliskiing last winter). l

    Reggie Krist photo courtesy Kiki Tidwel
  • Darrel Anderson, Idaho Power president and chief financial officer.

    Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman
  • One of Idaho Power's 17 hydroelectric plants on the Snake River system.

    Idaho Tourism
  • Mike Williams of Idaho Power at the company's new Langley Gulch natural gas plant, which can generate up to 330 megawatts.

    Kyle Green/Idaho Statesman

Updated 10/29/13


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."

Howard Johnson
Howard Johnson Subscriber
Sep 03, 2013 03:25 PM
And I thought AZ was the worst.....count me as corrected...
Skyler Selzler
Skyler Selzler
Sep 04, 2013 09:31 AM
Well, if you don't mind me asking, why do you think AZ was the worst... Just wondering.
Bob Nikon
Bob Nikon
Mar 06, 2014 07:24 PM
Well, There are two problems here that I can see. firstly, people are counting on something that they can't control, like something will determine when and where you should have energy. Secondly, people need power from authority to determine to give a permit for energy. Why not cut all these out and get all energy you need on your own. Just follow my articles and shortly you will see that I have a solid plan for our future:-
In my previous article I described how important the energy was to our preferred lifestyle. In this article I will lead you to delve down into the sources of energy. The energy that now becomes inseparable part of our lives and how we obtain it has been impacting our way of live.
    There are three major formations of fossil deposits that we obtain from mother nature: Natural gas, Coal and Crude Oil.
    Natural gas is a product of fossil deposits produced by nature which certainly takes a very long time. It is a type of carbon composition being trapped deeply underground. We use natural gas in limited ways comparing with electricity, in fact all functions that are fueled by natural gas can be replaced by electricity.
    Coal is another type of fossil deposits being produced by natural process underground. It is used as a fuel to generate electricity. Electricity is widely used in our way of live. Anything we want to nourish our preferred lifestyle, electricity can make it all happen. Electricity is a man-made product that can be obtained by consuming the fossil deposits such as coal, shale, woods and crude oil. Coal is the most efficient one. We burn these fossil deposits in order to obtain energy in the form of electricity and deliver through the grid. That is how energy will be available wherever it is needed.
    Crude oil is another type of the fossil deposits. It is a carbon composition preserved underground in the form of liquid. It has to be refined so that the machinery can consume. We use crude oil for all types of machinery. It has become the important fuel for our transportation needs.
    Over a century ago we lived on the oil from whales as our energy. At some point of time we came to realize that if we kept killing them for oil. Sooner or later there would be no whales left for the new generations to come. At the mean time we discovered these fossil deposits to replace the oil from whales. They were plentiful and effective but wouldn't it end up with the same problem? Eventually, there will be nothing left. We have plenty of these fossil deposits in some different forms at the present time, plentiful supply that we can use until some of us may feel not to worry about. But with increasing numbers of population due to:-
-the multiplication of reproduction on every new generation. Most of us are prone to do so. Reproduction is the most tenacious instinct in all creatures.
-the advanced technologies in medical science that help fighting against any influenza epidemic that frequently attacks and kills people in large numbers.
-the new nutritional researches that make people live longer and healthier.
-the great efforts to study on big accidents like aviation related accidents that kill people in large numbers all at once, in order to prevent them from happening again.
-the great wars like WW I & II are less likely to break out any more. The new generations start to realize more value of being born as human being. They are prone to settle down calmly over the conflicts that could lead to wars.
     All these factors point to the only one thing which is more population as the time goes by and everyone of us needs energy to live on. It will be a huge mistake if we continue living on our lives not to prepare for this situation. The depletion of fossil deposits may not occur in our generation or a few generations ahead. But it certainly will occur because the rate of replenishment by nature of these resources can not catch up with the rate of our energy consumption due to progressive rate of population growth. There are no arguments against this term. We are living on borrowed time and the clock is ticking. Eventually, we all will have to pay back and it will be painful and expensive. Not to mention about the inauspicious circumstances that are created day by day to augment the effects of global worming on our natural surroundings.
     It has been a very long time since we have learned how energy can enrich our lives and we have striven to obtain the energy from different sources. The sources have been changed from time to time to be benign for environment and more reliable. Despite all the efforts, we have gone on the wrong track time after time. We live on with no plans at all when it comes to energy. It's time to make a change now folks, once and for all. Because a right choice is now at our disposal. Join me on this fight, it will be a fight to draw solid plans for our certain future and a clean planet to live. Finally, we can have solid plans for all. Go to and participate in. Watch for my next article about free energy for eternity. I have a solid plan to reveal. We can eventually extricate ourselves completely from carbon footprint.