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

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Kiki Tidwell is one of that minority's most vocal members. On a sunny day last September, the petite, well-coiffed blonde sat in her Seattle condo happily discussing clean energy, producing stacks of research and hand-written notes. "I see a lot of similarities between clean energy technologies today and the early days of the personal computer," Tidwell said. "We are in the early stages of a massive market with global ramifications."

Tidwell, who grew up in Hawaii, worked for a time in her family's Outrigger Hotel and Resorts, a global chain of posh beachfront getaways. She came to Idaho 30 years ago because it had the "best damn ski mountain anywhere," and built a successful career in real estate. Now, she splits her time between Hailey and Seattle, where she's an active member of the Northwest Energy Angels, a group of wealthy investors who fund clean energy start-ups. When Jackson lost his Rainbow Ranch investment, Tidwell lent him money to keep his kid in school.

Tidwell doesn't call herself an environmentalist. She prefers "capitalist," and is an ardent free-market Republican. But she sees renewable energy as a tool for rural development. Idaho could generate 18,074 megawatts of energy from wind, but has only 972 megawatts of installed capacity. Tidwell believes that developing more wind and solar, while increasing energy conservation through a fleet of recently installed smart meters, could give Idaho counties tax revenues while saving consumers money.

And coal, she believes, is too risky an investment. That's why in 2009, Tidwell, who owns a chunk of Idaho Power stock, masterminded a shareholders' resolution urging the utility to shrink its carbon emissions -- another way of telling it to kick its dependence on coal, which generates about 42 percent of its power. The company objected, unwilling to ditch coal or bring new wind or solar online until the scope of federal climate legislation was clear. The shareholders' resolution was financed by Tidwell and filed by the shareholder advocacy group As You Sow, along with Calvert Asset Management and Trillium Asset Management, which own stock or represent shareholders. "Companies all across the country are planning to reduce carbon emissions and to capitalize on renewable energy opportunities," Lily Donge, senior analyst at Calvert, said at the time. "Idaho Power's wait-and-see strategy raises a lot of red flags for investors."

For years, environmental activists have unsuccessfully tried to change utilities through shareholder resolutions. But this time, in Idaho, they triumphed, with 52 percent of the vote. "The company takes this vote seriously and will consider adopting quantitative goals this year," Idaho Power CEO LaMont Keen responded. The Idaho Statesman opined that the resolution was "a favor disguised as a mandate," adding, "The issue comes down to timing. Does Idaho Power do the right thing now, or does it wait until later?"

The company responded by setting a goal of lowering carbon emissions 10 to 15 percent below 2005 levels. It's surpassed that goal: Last year, carbon emissions were 27 percent below 2005 levels. But critics say that's because of a historic, recession-induced drop in electricity demand, which allowed Idaho Power to rely on hydro and natural gas-fired power plants and rarely use its smallest plant. There's no guarantee this pattern will hold as demand rises again.

Idaho Power gets most of its coal power from two out-of-state plants: Nevada's 538-megawatt North Valmy Generating Station and Wyoming's 2,110-megawatt Jim Bridger Plant. Both need pollution controls to address mercury emissions and haze, and within the next five years, new nitrogen oxide controls, too. And then, of course, there's carbon dioxide. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has yet to draft CO2 limits for existing plants, but President Obama directed it to do so this summer. Additionally, Jim Bridger stores the wastewater and sludge from burning coal in open, unlined ponds. EPA is considering stiffer regulations for those ponds, even labeling them "toxic." Should that happen, Idaho Power and the plant's co-owners would have to treat nearly 50 years of slurry as hazardous waste, and the cost could shut the plant down.

Earlier this year, Idaho Power released a long-awaited study of the costs of upgrading its coal plants versus converting to natural gas or building new gas-fired plants. It put the price of the cheapest option -- haze and mercury controls at Jim Bridger -- at $140 million, and asked the PUC to bill customers for the upgrades. In contrast, faced with similar choices, Portland General Electric simply decided to close its Boardman coal facility -- which Idaho Power owns 10 percent of -- and build a natural gas plant. NV Energy, Idaho Power's partner in the Valmy plant, is also planning to close several coal facilities, mostly in southern Nevada, but is keeping Valmy for now.

Environmentalists contend Idaho Power low-balled the costs with a piecemeal upgrade strategy that addresses specific pollutants in the short term instead of accounting for the total cost of complying with future regulations. "They know that around 2018 they are going to have to comply with new regulations for nitrogen oxide emissions," notes Ben Otto of the Idaho Conservation League, "but in this study they give it zero compliance cost."

Meanwhile, the utility marginalized some of its most vocal critics. For years, the Snake River Alliance has pushed the utility to beef up its conservation and energy-efficiency programs. In May 2012, when Idaho Power held its annual shareholders meeting in a blocky downtown Boise office tower, the group organized its own "careholders" meeting across the street. Some 40 people rallied under a hand-painted sign proclaiming, "Idaho Power: We care, choose efficiency." The star of the show was "Mr. Idaho Power," who arrogantly dismissed questions about emissions and climate change, drawing chuckles and boos.

It was a small protest, and Idaho Power could have ignored it. But executives thought Mr. Idaho Power vilified Board Chairman and CEO LaMont Keen. The next week, the utility booted the Snake River Alliance from its resource planning committee -- which helps the company chart how it will meet future energy demand -- criticizing the group's "wind at all costs" attitude. Ken Miller, the Snake River Alliance's clean energy director, retorts, "We've never advocated for replacing a coal plant with wind. That's just impossible."

Mark Stokes, the utility's power supply planning manager, says the Alliance was expelled because "they called our CEO a liar," adding that Miller still attended public resource committee meetings, giving valued input. "They probably do feel we bullied them to some degree. But the campaign we started was really designed to educate our customers around wind issues. If that's what they consider hardball, well, it is what it is."

This hostility toward renewable energy is ironic, say critics, because the utility is perfectly positioned to kick coal. Its anti-wind battle has played out in the shadow of Langley Gulch, a controversial new natural gas plant that came online last summer, raised electricity rates by about 6.5 percent, and was justified partly as being necessary to integrate wind. With two more gas plants and its Snake River dams, says Boise attorney Richardson, Idaho Power's portfolio is primed for more renewables. "Gas and hydro are what utilities need to balance wind, and they have plenty of both."

But the addition of Langley Gulch's 330 megawatts means there's almost always excess power. Given this surplus, Idaho Power has sought to ditch renewables and backpedal on conservation. Energy efficiency is strongly supported by business leaders and elected officials, and historically Idaho Power has boasted some of the West's strongest efforts. But last year, it suspended programs that click off air conditioners and irrigation pumps during peak demand.

When the utility sought approval to build Langley Gulch, Richardson -- along with a coalition representing all of Idaho Power's various customer groups -- argued it wasn't needed because demand was way down. It would have been cheaper to beef up renewables while managing demand and investing in efficiency to shave summer spikes. At the very least, says Richardson, the company should have had to close its Valmy plant to build Langley Gulch.

Now, hope for a cleaner future may rest on a new transmission line. The company recently released its integrated resource plan, a 20-year road map for meeting future demand, which is expected to eventually increase above what even Langley Gulch can satisfy. The plan favors building a transmission line from Boardman, Ore., to Melba, Idaho, that would access wind, hydro and natural gas power in Washington and Oregon. Additionally, starting in 2016, Idaho Power plans to have conservation programs in place to reduce electricity use by 150 megawatts during periods of high demand.

Clean energy advocates aren't celebrating yet, but they're encouraged by the proposed transmission line, which could give the company new options for replacing its coal power and generate revenue. Access to cleaner energy, and the likelihood that carbon will eventually be regulated, could make it increasingly hard for the company to justify Valmy. "It's not like, 'Hallelujah! They got religion!' " the Snake River Alliance's Ken Miller says of the company's 20-year plan. "But it's a cleaner option."

And in March, the federal government raised hopes that Idaho's new PURPA rules may be overturned, claiming that Idaho overstepped its authority when it changed the rules. If it wins, Jackson could build Rainbow Ranch.

The Snake River Alliance didn't protest at this May's annual meeting. But about a dozen pro-clean energy stockholders showed up to pepper CEO Keen with questions about emissions and renewable energy. After one particularly testy exchange, a frustrated Keen told the crowd that the shareholders meeting wasn't the forum to discuss climate change or new energy technologies; it was a time to talk profits. The news on that front was good: Last year, the net income of IdaCorp, Idaho Power's parent company, rose to $168 million, the fifth straight year of positive earnings growth. Idaho Power is doggedly focused on the bottom line, and it delivers. Keen emphasized that in his response to the climate-concerned shareholder, underscoring the wide gulf that remains between Idaho Power and renewable energy activists: "This should be a celebration for IdaCorp," Keen complained. "We had a great year."

Stephen Ernst is editor of Clearing Up, a weekly energy policy newsletter covering the Pacific Northwest. He lives in Seattle.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.

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