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

BOISE, IDAHO

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • GRANT WRITER (PART-TIME, FREELANCE CONTRACT)
    High Country News seeks an energetic, eloquent and highly organized grant writer to support a growing foundations program. This position works closely with our Executive...
  • ASSOCIATE PROGRAM MANAGER
    Associate Program Manager ORGANIZATION BACKGROUND Parks California is a new organization working to ensure that our State Parks thrive. From redwood groves and desert springs...
  • ATTORNEY AD
    Criminal Defense, Code Enforcement, Water Rights, Mental Health Defense, Resentencing.
  • LUNATEC HYDRATION SPRAY BOTTLE
    A must for campers and outdoor enthusiasts. Cools, cleans and hydrates with mist, stream and shower patterns. Hundreds of uses.
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • PROFESSIONAL GIS SERVICES
    Custom Geospatial Solutions is available for all of your GIS needs. Affordable, flexible and accurate data visualization and analysis for any sized project.
  • FREE RANGE BISON AVAILABLE
    Hard grass raised bison available in east Montana. You harvest or possible deliver quartered carcass to your butcher or cut/wrapped pickup. Contact Crazy Woman Bison...
  • CONSERVATION ASSOCIATE - OKANOGAN LAND TRUST (NORTH CENTRAL WA)
    Do you enjoy rural living, wild places, and the chance to work with many different kinds of people and accomplish big conservation outcomes? Do you...
  • CARDIGAN WELSH CORGIS
    10 adorable, healthy puppies for sale. 4 males and 6 females. DM and PRA clear. Excellent pedigree from champion lineage. One Red Brindle male. The...
  • A CHILDREN'S BOOK FOR THE CLIMATE CRISIS!!
    "Goodnight Fossil Fuels!" is a an engaging, beautiful, factual and somewhat silly picture book by a climate scientist and a climate artist, both based in...
  • DIGITAL ADVOCACY & MEMBERSHIP MANAGER
    The Digital Advocacy & Membership Manager will be responsible for creating and delivering compelling, engaging digital content to Guardians members, email activists, and social media...
  • DIGITAL OUTREACH COORDINATOR, ARIZONA
    Job Title: Digital Outreach Coordinator, Arizona Position Location: Phoenix or Tucson, AZ Status: Salaried Job ID Number: 52198 We are looking for you! We are...
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST VOLUNTEER PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Deschutes Land Trust is seeking an experienced Volunteer Program Manager to join its dedicated team! Deschutes Land Trust conserves and cares for the lands...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF DEVELOPMENT
    The Nature Conservancy in Wyoming seeks an experienced fundraiser to join our team. We're looking for a great communicator who is passionate about conservation and...
  • INDIAN COUNTRY FELLOWSHIP
    Western Leaders Network is accepting applications for its paid, part-time, 6-month fellowship. Mentorship, training, and engaging tribal leaders in advancing conservation initiatives and climate policy....
  • MULESHOE RANCH PRESERVE MANAGER
    The Muleshoe Ranch Preserve Manager develops, manages, and advances conservation programs, plans and methods for large-scale geographic areas. The Muleshoe Ranch Cooperative Management Area (MRCMA)...
  • ARTEMIS PROGRAM MANAGER
    Founded in 1936, the National Wildlife Federation (NWF or Federation) is America's largest and most trusted grassroots conservation organization with 52 state/territorial affiliates and more...
  • ASSISTANT OR ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENVIRONMENTAL HUMANITIES
    Assistant or Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities Whitman College The Environmental Humanities Program at Whitman College seeks candidates for a tenure-track position beginning August 2023...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    High Country Conservation Advocates (HCCA) in Crested Butte, CO is seeking an enthusiastic Executive Director who is passionate about the public lands, natural waters and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR OF VOLUNTEER PROGRAMS
    Are you passionate about connecting people to the outdoors? The Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA) is looking for someone with volunteer management experience to join...