Before electricity became universal, some farms produced their own electricity using systems like windmills. Now, whether out of concern for the environment, self-sufficiency, or wanting to plan for the future, some Idahoans want to create their own power — if the power company lets them.
Companies like Idaho Power and Intermountain Gas are governed by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission. Utilities are private companies, and are entitled to a profit; the PUC makes sure the rights of the people are protected and utilities don’t make too much of a profit. So whenever a utility wants to do something that could change its rates — including building new facilities — it has to go through the PUC and get its approval.
Several issues surrounding renewable energy and energy conservation have come up about environmental concerns vs. costs. It’s an interesting question. Idaho has some of the lowest electrical costs in the country, thanks to hydropower, and many people are alert to anything that could raise rates.
It goes back to when Idaho Power received approval to build its Langley Gulch combined-cycle gas turbine plant in New Plymouth. Combined-cycle means the Langley Gulch plant recaptures energy that is usually lost in a simple-cycle energy plant. This makes it more expensive to build, but cheaper to run. The Langley Gulch plant started running last summer, and, according to the Idaho Press Tribune, resulted in an increase of 6.8% in our electric rates.
However, now that the Langley Gulch plant is up and running, Idaho Power wants to use it, so it is ending several programs intended to create or conserve energy. For example, you may have used Cool Credit, which put a little box on your air conditioning system that would let Idaho Power shut off the A/C in your house for up to 15 minutes per hour. This meant that Idaho Power could keep from having to buy more expensive power on the spot market, when it ran out of the power it generated itself. What saved even more energy was Irrigation Peak Rewards, a similar program for irrigation pivots — which, being really big, use a lot more power than air conditioners. Earlier this year, Idaho Power asked to stop both those programs until 2016. The PUC approved the change but is still holding workshops on what to do with these programs.
More recently, Idaho Power tried to change the rules for its “net metering” customers — that is, people who had their own solar energy systems on their own property to make electricity for their own use. When the systems created more power than the people used, they could sell the excess electricity to Idaho Power, at a rate set by the PUC.
Saying those people weren’t paying their share of the physical system that transmits power, Idaho Power wanted to change costs associated with the net metering program, warning that otherwise rates for everyone else might go up. The change would raise costs high enough that it would no longer be cost-effective for people to use their own solar power systems — even if they had invested a lot of money in them based on the original net metering rates.
People who had solar power systems, as well as people in the solar power industry, protested this action. (In fact, many more people protested this change than had protested Idaho Power’s 8 percent rate hike earlier this year — a rate hike that Idaho Power said it
needed because of the lack of rain this winter.)
The PUC recently agreed with the protesters and said Idaho Power couldn’t make those sweeping changes in the net metering program, because it hadn’t made its case strongly enough that the changes were necessary to keep the rates low for everyone else.
The story isn’t over. When the Legislature goes into session, it might make legislation or rules that make it harder for people to have their own solar energy systems. Similarly, some members of the Legislature have in recent years been against wind power systems and have brought forth legislation to make it harder to set them up. It will be interesting to see whether legislators who support Idaho Power will do what the PUC wouldn’t.