Coal Hearted 

Idaho Power's hot potato

A megawatt (MW) is 1,000 kilowatts (KW) or 1 million watts. Powering a 100-watt light bulb for four hours consumes 400 watt hours (WH) of energy. The average home in the Idaho Power service area consumes 1,050 kilowatt hours (KWH) per month or 12,600 KWH per year.

In 2012 Idaho Power served 416,020 residential customers, 66,039 commercial and industrial customers, and 19,045 irrigation customers.

Demand Response (DR) is defined by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission as "changes in electric usage by end-use customers from their normal consumption patterns in response to changes in the price of electricity over time, or to incentive payments designed to induce lower electricity use at times of high wholesale market prices or when system reliability is jeopardized."

Although there are no coal-burning power plants in Idaho, Idaho Power does own a portion of three coal-burning plants in Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming (see idahopower.com/aboutus/energysources/coal).

At the Boise Airport July 1, air temperature reached 110 degrees Fahrenheit, just one degree shy of Boise's all-time, high-temperature record set in 1960. Under the sweltering conditions of the heat wave, Idaho Power, thanks in large part to its coal-fired power plants in Nevada, Oregon and Wyoming, pumped out record amounts of power to run air conditioning through hundreds of thousands of its customers' homes.

A previous low snowpack season quickly diminished the Gem State's much-heralded hydropower, said Mark Stokes, Power Supply Planning manager for Idaho Power Corp. Stokes joined company executives, shareholders and members of the public for a series of summer meetings on the--quite literally--hot topic at Idaho Power's downtown Boise headquarters.

"Public input hasn't changed in a long time," Stokes told BW. "ICL [Idaho Conservation League] and the Snake River Alliance would like to see us burn less coal because of the implications for the environment. If coal runs less, we rely more on other, more expensive sources. It gets more media attention, but a [recent] poll of Idaho Power customers said they were more concerned with the cost of electricity. It was the biggest issue."

Stokes and other workshop participants spoke a great deal about "demand response," which attendees quickly began referring to as "DR." In short, DR is a method for reducing the load on the electrical grid and offsetting the need for additional generation sources. Idaho Power officials are quick to say that reliability is the company's No. 1 goal. For example, linemen and women have been working around the clock this summer to restore power where wildfires have been crippling or, in some cases, destroying power poles. Idaho Power says it is constantly exploring numerous options for improving efficiency and conservation as part of its mission to deliver uninterrupted power to its customers. The company, for example, has negotiated about 330 megawatts of DR with regional irrigation users, and 35 megawatts with air-conditioned residents who have the greatest need of power in the summer, but the company learned that the intermittent energy savings were not fully utilized this summer. In fact, the company specifically cancelled DR deals last winter because they were deemed unneeded to meet projected demand, according to company press releases and statements at the summer DR workshops.

It is an area of operations that makes industry watchdogs prick up their ears. Their main question: "Why is it not being used?"

The debate was raised during DR workshops and leads to deeper discussions about motive and method for producing carbon-free power in the near and distant future.

On July 2, Idaho Power's average instantaneous electricity output set a new demand record: 3,402 megawatts, between 3 p.m.-4 p.m. Idaho Power said so-called "thermal fuels"--stuff you burn, like coal and natural gas--were the majority of the load source used to meet the peak demand and keep customers cool for another day.

Stokes explained that with the lacking capability of hydropower plants (due to low snowpack), wind (he said sometimes it doesn't blow when it is most needed) and solar panels (Idaho doesn't have many in place), the company has been utilizing more out-of-state, coal-generated power, diesel natural gas generation near Mountain Home and its new $400,000,000 Langley Gulch natural gas power plant in Payette County.

On July 3, demand for electricity kicked things up another notch, beating the previous day's record by 5 megawatts, scratching the ceiling, yet again, of Idaho Power's load capacity of 3,594 megawatts. However, demand response was only minimally employed (35 megawatts that were already committed under third-party contracts). The average system load on July 3, between 3 p.m.-4 p.m., was 3,407 megawatts. Idaho Power said its power was derived from coal (947 megawatts), hydroelectric (925 megawatts), natural gas (641 megawatts), wind (57 megawatts) and market purchases (about 800 megawatts that can include any mix of electricity sources, but includes some 200 megawatts from alternative sources like wind, solar and geothermal producers transmitted via power lines largely from the Pacific Northwest, where larger percentages of green electricity generation is being required).

Hydroelectricity, which is the closest thing to having a huge storage battery for on-demand power, helps keep Idaho in the bottom half of the list of polluting utilities in the country (Idaho Power ranks 37th out of 100 for U.S. carbon dioxide emissions).

But Idaho still derives all of its coal-generated electricity from plants out of state, which helps with in-state air quality. The out-of-state plants each have retrofits scheduled to bring them up to standards or are planned for decommission, but coal remains an integral part of Idaho Power's electricity generation plan for at least the next 20 years.

Here is the outlook for each of these plants:

Nevada--The North Valmy plant has not been not required to install controls for regional haze. The plant is scheduled for retirement.

Oregon (Boardman plant)--This plant is scheduled to close in 2020; it is required to control haze-forming sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in the interim.

Wyoming--In June, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposed to partially approve and partially disapprove the state plan for addressing regional haze. The agency also proposed a federal plan to cover deficiencies in the state plan, until the state plan can be fully approved. The plan would require controls on the Jim Bridger plant.

Idaho Power does have some forward-looking language on its website, extolling some examples of efficiencies, but the company also steadfastly defends its dependency on coal:

"Coal is nature's energy storehouse. This geologic legacy is the foundation of Idaho Power's three coal-fired plants: the Jim Bridger Power Plant in Wyoming, the Boardman Coal Plant in Oregon, and the North Valmy Generating Station in Nevada. These facilities convert one of nature's most bountiful energy sources into reliable, low-cost electricity while adhering to some of the strictest standards for protecting the environment."

On average, coal is the fuel source for producing about one-third of Idaho Power's electricity. Although the company talks about improving efficiency, green-power advocates say that the company could be doing more to move forward with energy production that will take less of a toll on the environment. The pressure is turning the ship around, as one might gather even from Idaho Power's language about efficiency and alternative power source planning, but advocates like ICL simply want that ship to turn faster.

The Snake River Alliance and ICL point to scientific studies that conclude that carbon emissions trigger more rapid global warming and growing public and corporate support for fewer coal-powered generators.

"We use products that are environmentally sensitive, particularly in regard to electricity," said Robert Hart, former president of Kennedy Wilson Multifamily Management Group, who recently launched an investment firm called TruAmerica Multifamily that focuses on acquiring, managing and rehabilitating housing in the Western U.S. to become more efficient.

"Many municipalities give incentives for energy conservation. It is definitely a driving force in residential construction and the componentry that goes into apartments. We certainly make every effort to do things where we can," he said.

Hart said as his company markets to generations X and Y; they seek LEED certification because "that's the demand."

Plans for coal-fired solutions to Idaho's electricity demand, according to planning documents published in 2009, pushed parent company IDACORP shareholders to recommend a carbon reduction plan. The aim was to keep emissions under 2005 levels through this year. The company says it has achieved the goal, although emissions are already higher this year than in 2012, when hydroelectric production was more robust and more DR was employed. The company has extended the goal of keeping emissions below 2005 levels through 2015, but coal is still central to meeting peak demand.

Idaho Conservation League spokesman Ben Otto, aka "Captain Kilowatt," stood before an Aug. 19 public workshop at the headquarters of Idaho Power and asked: "Is that a smart investment? Should we invest in or phase out coal?

Otto told Boise Weekly that it would help to envision an older model car.

"It needs new brakes, a new muffler," Otto told BW. "It's very easy to nickel and dime yourself to death. Maybe it's time for a new approach and stop chasing good money after bad and start investing in wholly cleaner resources."

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