The messages in Idaho Power’s “Dear Wind” ads are simple.
“You’re costing a fortune.”
“You’re blowing our money. You’re not here when I need you.”
Idaho Power Co. ended the ad campaign Friday that ran on Facebook and websites like Fox News and the Drudge Report designed to send people to the company’s “Get Plugged in” website. There, readers find posts from wind power critics nationwide along with Idaho Power’s own criticisms of wind power and the federal law that requires utilities with service-area monopolies to buy renewable energy.
The ads are part of a coordinated campaign by the investor-owned utility to persuade state regulators, political leaders and the public to stop or dramatically reduce the amount of wind and other renewable power it has to buy.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will hold hearings next month on the terms of contracts between renewable energy developers and utilities. Those hearings could decide whether companies will continue to develop alternative energy sources in Idaho or go elsewhere.
Renewable-energy and conservation groups say the ads are misleading. They say generating new energy always costs more money than existing plants, but that over time wind will be cheaper because there is no fuel cost.
They also say that wind can be integrated into the electrical system without causing the reliability and other problems that Idaho Power claims.
SHOOTING A MESSENGER?
One of those groups, the Snake River Alliance, was told last week that it has been kicked off Idaho Power’s Integrated Resource Plan Advisory Council. The decision came after the environmental group organized a demonstration at the utility’s May stockholders meeting aimed at getting the company to reduce its reliance on coal.
“SRA’s agenda with regard to generation can fairly be characterized as ‘wind rather than coal generation, whatever the cost,’ ” Dan Minor, Idaho Power’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, said in a letter to the Alliance.
Alliance Director Liz Woodruff said Minor turned down a request for a meeting with top Idaho Power executives. The alliance, born in battles over nuclear waste, is Idaho’s most prominent advocate for conservation and renewable energy.
“We have argued for a diverse energy portfolio, putting energy efficiency first,” Woodruff said.
The company said it saw no need to meet with the alliance.
Mark Stokes, Idaho Power’s manager of power supply planning, said Idaho Power decided to kick the alliance off the council because its “recent change in direction and tactics” – the protest – will hurt the council’s collaborative process.
The alliance is still invited to attend meetings and participate, just not be a member of the council, Stokes said.
“Idaho Power has historically had a good working relationship with the Snake River Alliance,” he said.
Ben Otto, an attorney with the Idaho Conservation League and a member of the advisory council, was shocked to learn the alliance had been booted. But he said it fits with the tack Idaho Power has taken over the past two years toward wind and other renewable issues.
“They’re super-aggressive at every point,” Otto said.
A CHANGE OF HEART
In August 2010, Idaho Power executive Lisa Grow joined Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and wind developer James Carkulis of Exergy on a stage as they dedicated a giant wind farm near Bliss. Grow, Idaho Power’s senior vice president for power supply, told reporters that the utility’s proposed Langley Gulch natural-gas-fueled plant near New Plymouth would help integrate the expected 800 megawatts of new wind plants into a “balanced resource portfolio.”
What changed? Not the completion of Langley Gulch, which if anything has made it possible for Idaho Power to take on more wind power.
“We got hit with over 300 megawatts (more of wind power) after that project,” Stokes said.
By the end of 2010, Idaho Power and the other state utilities were asking the PUC for a moratorium on having to purchase renewable energy under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act.
PURPA, passed by Congress in 1978, was written to guarantee that small and alternative energy developers could not be shut out of the energy business by the big, dominant monopoly utilities.
The measure encouraged development of renewable power sources by assuring private energy developers they would have a market and a set rate for their electricity. That rate would be based on what it would cost the monopoly utility to build a new electric-generation plant, known as “avoided cost.”
Today, Idaho Power says that wind developers, armed with generous federal subsidies that attracted big companies like Shell and General Electric, gamed the system. They broke up their wind farms into small-enough clusters to take advantage of Idaho’s 10-megawatt limit designed to keep the projects small.
Wind developers said they simply followed the existing rules and incentives. They say updating the avoided-cost rate will resolve the issue.
The PUC agreed with the utilities and stopped all new projects bigger than 100 kilowatts until it considers a new avoided-cost rate and other PURPA contract rules.
The utilities have never liked the law or Idaho’s relatively aggressive implementation. PUC Commissioner Marsha Smith said PURPA has always been a tough issue.
“I remember the implementation wars in the 1980s,” she said. “I don’t know if this is any more contentious.”
CLASH OF VALUES, VIEWS
The utility changed its tack, said Stokes, when the amount of wind coming on line threatened to dramatically increase costs to Idaho Power customers.
If the utility is required to buy larger and larger amounts of power from intermittent, weather-dependent sources like wind and solar, he said, it has to spend more and more money on capacity to even out that cyclical flow.
“We decided to take a pretty strong stand on that,” Stokes said.
Idaho Power’s negative ads are necessary, he said, to get the public to recognize that intermittent wind is not the same as coal, gas and hydropower, which is always available.
“Wind is a resource we don’t have a problem with,” Stokes said. “It’s the amount that’s a problem.”
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