BOISE – Jared Grover wants to lasso southern Idaho wind – with a little help from a federal law.
Grover, a southern Idaho farmer, is developing two wind farms near Hagerman, along the Snake River about 130 miles east of Boise, to generate 30 megawatts of power, or enough to light as many as 30,000 homes.
He hopes to benefit from the 1978 Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, which requires regulated electric utilities to buy renewable power from small power producers at a fixed price.
Now, however, two power companies are trying to take the wind from Grover’s proposed turbines: Idaho Power, the state’s largest utility, and Avista Corp., the Spokane-based company that supplies electricity to northern Idaho. They have asked the state regulator to suspend their obligation to buy electricity from outfits like Grover’s.
They argue that the $60 dollars per megawatt-hour the federal government requires them to pay small wind farms is significantly higher than contract rates for larger wind projects in which price is negotiated through competitive bidding. For example, the utilities say a 135-megawatt wind farm that was approved in neighboring Montana was priced at $31.71 per megawatt – nearly half of the price in Idaho.
On Friday, the Idaho Public Utility Commission will consider the matter at a public hearing.
Grover says his project hangs in the balance.
“For me, a moratorium is going to kill my project,” Grover said Tuesday, where he and about a half-dozen other wind prospectors gathered outside the regulator’s office in Boise to protest. “My investors – they’re interested in investing this year.”
With Idaho ranked 13th in the nation for its potential for wind farm development, it’s been the focus of developers who want to harness the resource – and make money off it. Eight small wind farms have been approved by the regulator, although just one has been built so far. A 130-turbine wind farm is also in the works for the Cotterell Mountains near Albion.
What’s more, Idaho Power has called for 350 megawatts – or about 5 percent of its electricity generation – to come from wind by 2013.
But the utilities say that the federal law aimed at promoting the small wind farms and diversifying U.S. power sources could wind up boosting electricity prices for their more than 500,000 customers.
They also say they want regulators to address how having many small wind farms connected to Idaho’s grid will affect service reliability – because wind turbines only produce energy when the wind is blowing.
Idaho Power and Avista say the moratorium is needed to give the regulator time to investigate how these small wind farms will affect the companies’ total power-supply costs.
“We aren’t against wind power,” said Dennis Lopez, an Idaho Power spokesman. “What we’re asking for is a time-out. We want to know, how (small wind farms) are going to fit into the mix, what will the impacts be and how it’s going to affect our customers, pricewise. They pay 100 percent.”
The small wind farmers – some of whom, like Grover, have stopped farming their land as they turn to cultivating power – accuse the utilities of favoring coal and natural gas for future energy needs.
They also say Idaho Power is comparing “apples to oranges” when it cites the lower-priced electricity in the Montana project.
Kent Laverty, a spokesman for the group, says that a wind farm near Judith Gap has stronger winds, making electricity cheaper to generate, and is located closer to transmission lines, eliminating the need for expensive construction of infrastructure.
“Idaho Power is turning its back on the most economical and environmentally responsible resource available to it,” said Peter Richardson, a lawyer for Exergy Development Group, a Helena-based developer of wind farms with more than a half-dozen small Idaho projects in planning stages.
What’s more, Richardson said, the amount Idaho Power must pay for renewable electricity generated at small wind farms is no more than the cost of electricity from natural gas-fired plants.
The Idaho Public Utility sets the price utilities in the state must pay small producers for their renewable energy based on the price of power at gas-fired power plants that the wind farms theoretically replace, said Gene Fadness, the regulator’s spokesman.
Still, Idaho Power said, the $60-per-megawatt -hour it must pay the small wind farms has already skewed bids it’s received from developers of larger wind-power projects, who are not affected by 1978 law.
The utility told the Public Utilities Commission if it doesn’t get the moratorium, it could be forced to scale back its plans to develop wind power.
20 July 2005
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