The great state of Idaho is in a bit of a pickle when it comes to energy security, but a new breakthrough hints at a way out. State regulators just approved a $2 billion, 1,150 megawatt group of four new wind farms that will vault Idaho out of its wind energy doldrums, and help the state stabilize weaknesses in its electricity plan.
The Idaho Energy Security Conundrum
Before we get to those new wind farms, let’s take a quick look at the current energy situation in Idaho as toted up by the US Energy Information Agency.
Idaho has very little in the way of fossil fuel resources, so it gets more than one-third of its electricity from out-of-state. That’s a problem if you believe that distributed, localized energy is the sustainable wave of the future.
That problem is further compounded by the shifting landscape in other states:
Idaho depends on power supplied via interstate transmission lines from out-of-state generating facilities owned by Idaho utilities and other suppliers. A coal-fired power plant in Oregon that supplies electricity to Idaho is scheduled to close in 2020, and others may shut by 2025.
Historically, Idaho has leaned heavily on hydropower for in-state electricity production. Now that’s becoming a problem, too:
Hydroelectric power plants have typically supplied more than three-fourths of Idaho’s in-state net generation. However, in recent years drought has reduced hydroelectric generation’s share to less than three-fifths.
Those “recent years” continue up to the present year. According to the National Integrated Drought Information System, as of last week “abnormal dryness or drought are currently affecting approximately 1,077,000 people in Idaho, which is about 69% of the state’s population.”
“Instant” Wind Farms For Idaho
That brings us around to the new $2 billion wind farm investment. The new farms will be located in Wyoming, which doesn’t really address the out-of-state energy issue. Nevertheless, the new wind farms will have an outsized impact on energy security in Idaho.
For context, take a look at Idaho Power, which serves about 547,000 customers in an area that includes southern Idaho and eastern Oregon service.
Idaho Power celebrated its centennial year in 2016, with a hydro capacity of 1,709 megawatts spread among 17 hydropower plants.
In contrast, if all goes according to plan the new wind farms will provide 1,150 megawatts of capacity to the state’s grid in less than three years.
The final order from the Idaho Public Service Commission lays out the full plan, which includes a new 140-mile transmission line along with four new Wyoming wind farms: Ekola Flats, TB Flats I and II, and Cedar Springs.
No Cake Walk For Wind Energy
Wind fans recently suffered a big blow when the $4.5 billion, 2-gigawatt Windcatcher project was turned down by state regulators in Texas and Oklahoma, so the approval process for the new Wyoming-to-Idaho project was a nail biter.
The developer, Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company PacifiCorp had to beat down arguments from a group of large power users, which claimed that the investment was speculative in nature.
PSC found differently:
At its core, this case presents the question of whether or not the Company has shown it requires, or will require, the proposed wind generation facilities and transmission lines to adequately, efficiently, justly and reasonably serve its customers and promote the public “health, safety and convenience.” See Id., § 61-302. Having reviewed the record, we find that the Company has satisfied this burden.
And yes, Rocky Mountain does expect the new wind farms and transmission line to be in operation sometime in 2020.
PacificCorp’s plans also include repowering 900 megawatts in capacity at existing wind farms in Wyoming and Washington. The upgrade includes new turbines tricked out with with longer blades. The company expects that the new equipment will ramp up output by 25%. That work is also expected to be completed in 2020.
As for who’s gonna pay for all this, our friends over at Utility Dive report that the new wind farms will help keep down electricity rates in Idaho, which are already among the lowest in the nation thanks in part to hydropower.
About Those Coal Power Plants…
Circling back around to that thing about out-of-state energy, the goings-on in Oregon demonstrate why states that import electricity are planning ahead for alternatives.
Oregon’s major utility, PGE, was planning to shut down its 575-megawatt Boardman coal power plant and replace it with two new natural gas plants, but the plan ran into pushback over climate change concerns regarding natural gas.
Aside from that, the numbers didn’t work out. Here’s the company cited by our friends over at the Portland Tribune:
PGE has been moving on different fronts to oblige its critics, recently announcing a series of deals to acquire short-term hydro power and reduce its projected energy demand.
The utility’s CEO, Jim Piro, recently told stock analysts recently that PGE would seek to buy more power on the market and considered the two Carty gas plants as a backup plan.
CleanTechnica is going to check in with Idaho Power to see how the goings-on in Oregon will impact its operations moving forward, so stay tuned for more on that.
Meanwhile, speaking of environmental pushback, our sister site PlanetSave recently took note of a new report on proposed legislation in Idaho and a handful of other states, which seeks criminal penalties for protesting pipeline projects and other “critical infrastructure.”
Those penalties wouldn’t just apply to protesters who physically trespass or otherwise block work:
Under a bill introduced in Louisiana last week, people “conspiring” to impede pipeline construction could face up to 20 years in prison and pay up to $250,000. Similar legislation in Minnesota would allow an individual who “recruits, trains, aids, advises, hires, counsels, or conspires with” someone who damages a pipeline to be charged with a felony and up to 10 years in prison.
Comparable bills to protect pipelines as “critical infrastructure” have also cropped up in Oklahoma, Iowa, Ohio, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania.
Follow me on Twitter.
Photo (screenshot): Seven Mile Hill wind farm in Wyoming via Pacificorp.