How much are you paying for those wind turbines down the road? Idaho Power claims it’s a lot. The electric utility has asked the state Public Utilities Commission for a number of changes to how Idaho interprets the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act – federal law that requires electric utilities to buy energy from small-scale renewable energy projects that want to hook up to their systems.
Since 2009, wind projects hooking up to the company’s system under the law have spiked from less than 300 megawatts to nearly 1,000 MW. Idaho Power is obligated to accept them, paying a rate set by the state. Concerningly, wind developers – both small startups and large corporations – have shown no compunction about breaking up proposed wind farms into oddly tiny chunks to get them under the 100 kilowatt (formerly 1 megawatt) cap to qualify for PURPA.
Ratepayers will fork over tens of millions of dollars a year for that wind energy, Idaho Power argues. The company wants a switch to basing PURPA prices for all types of energy on the value and need for that energy source. It also seeks the ability, at times of low energy demand, to turn off the wind in favor of cheaper power like its existing hydropower network.
Wind supporters, naturally, don’t like the idea. Brian Jackson, president of American Wind Group, told Times-News reporter Kimberlee Kruesi that Idaho Power’s request is an attack on wind energy. The federal backing of PURPA allows wind developers to go up against large utilities, he said. “In a national and global energy crisis, I say we need to be doing more.”
There are at least two things wrong with that. Supporting fair competition on the energy market is one thing, but we can’t believe PURPA was intended to give one energy source a stranglehold on ratepayers who have few other choices. And the problem is that Idaho Power’s network has plenty of energy; with the current market, it often must sell the wind power at a loss.
That’s not to say the entire wind industry needs thrown out the window. Complete moratoriums on wind development proposed this legislative session would have been overkill, akin to attacking a pesky gnat with a sledgehammer.
Idaho Power’s past antipathy toward wind power hasn’t always seemed justified. But this time, the state’s largest energy provider has a point. Wind developers are clearly gaming the existing PURPA system, and ratepayers shouldn’t be forced to spend millions extra on them – especially fresh out of a recession.
After years of price supports and federal and state incentives, wind power should begin to stand on its own two feet. And state regulators should do their part to help that happen. The results will benefit both the industry and Idahoans.