In three years, an entirely new industry to the state has found a home in Magic Valley: wind. It doesn’t employ many people. It doesn’t have a flashy corporate image. It doesn’t get talked about much.
But that’s all changing. A handful of low-key southern Idaho wind producers may be the state’s next energy pioneers – especially as Idaho works toward developing low-emission energy sources.
Idaho Power Co. finalized deals with two new wind producers last week, bringing the total amount of wind energy in its system to 400 megawatts. Three years ago, that number was zero.
Since 2004, when the federal government began offering tax breaks to alternative-energy producers, 19 wind farms – that’s every wind farm now in the state – have signed deals to open in Idaho.
Most of the new operations are popping up in southern Idaho. The allure is a moderately windy area, lots of open land and a utility company that’s required by law to buy wind-produced energy.
Since the energy crisis of the 1970s, the federal government has required utility companies to buy power produced by alternative-energy suppliers, such as wind farmers. The program, the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, says utilities must buy power from alternative producers at a rate equal to what the utility would spend if it would have to generate the power itself or buy it from another source. In Idaho, that rate is about $62 per megawatt hour.
But PURPA also brought troubles to utilities in places like southern Idaho.
In the first 18 months since the tax break took effect, Idaho went from zero wind farms to six, five of which were in Twin Falls County. The rapid influx caused problems for Idaho Power, which was not prepared to incorporate the energy into its grid. The power company asked the IPUC – the state’s energy regulatory body – in August 2005 to pass an emergency moratorium on new wind farms until the company could study how best to incorporate the surge in new energy sources. The commission agreed, and imposed a temporary ban on wind farms that qualify for PURPA until Idaho Power could study the influx’s effects. Several wind farms in development before the moratorium have since been grandfathered into the system.
The power company finished its 85-page report last month. It identified several obstacles to incorporating wind farms into its grid. Most significant is wind’s unreliability: Wind simply doesn’t blow all the time. The company falls back on its hydro sources when turbines don’t spin by adjusting flows at dams – and that costs money. The power company proposed to the commission paying wind producers $10.72 per megawatt hour less than the $62 rate to offset the costs and save customers from higher rates.
Hydro facilities are already stretched to capacity, and incorporating new wind farms may require Idaho Power to seek out other energy sources, including coal-fired power, company Corporate Communications Director Jeff Beaman told the Times-News in February.
Another problem: infrastructure. The company wants wind farmers to pay additional costs for extra transmission lines and grid updates needed to bring the farms into the system.
That’s angered some wind farmers, namely Jared Grover. He has interests in two wind farms near Hagerman that the utility company says will cost about $60 million to incorporate. Grover says no wind farmer in southern Idaho has that kind of money. The dispute is pending with IPUC.
Also unresolved is how the study’s findings will affect the future of wind in Idaho. The moratorium is still in place, and a bevy of prospective farmers are pounding on Magic Valley’s door.
To help answer these questions, Idaho Power will host a workshop March 15 to present the study’s findings and assess the fledgling industry.
Until then, answers about the future of Idaho’s wind farms will continue to blow in the wind.
By Matt Christensen
Times-News staff writer Matt Christensen covers natural resources. He welcomes comments at 735-3243 and at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 March 2007
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