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I attended a presentation last night sponsored by the United States Green Building Council, Idaho Chapter, where Snake River Alliance discussed energy policy. One of my clients is Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., which is seeking to build a nuclear plant in Elmore County, and the SRA vituperatively opposes the project.

It’s clear most decision makers and members of the public check the “all of the above” box when it comes to energy policy; nearly 7 in 10 Americans support nuclear energy, as well as all of Idaho’s congressional delegation and President Obama. The nuclear industry has a long history in Idaho and is a crucial part of the state’s economy.

The SRA is finding itself in an increasingly isolated anti-nuclear stance and to make up for that, it’s pitching itself as a renewable energy advocacy group to the public and officials that it’s lobbying. The SRA is hoping the feel-good aspects of renewables will lead to greater acceptance of their feel-bad stance on nuclear.

The SRA’s lobbyist, Liz Woodruff, left out some important points in her presentation, though. While she praised Idaho’s 2007 energy plan and advocated for its greater implementation, she avoided mentioning that the plan does, in fact, call for nuclear energy to be a part of our energy mix (add the Idaho Legislature to the list of groups that check the “all of the above” box). As someone who believes we need to pursue all low-carbon and carbon-free energy sources, I also support the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan – in its entirety.

Woodruff also avoided mention that the public and fellow environmental groups are frequently obstacles to energy production and transmission in general, and to renewables in particular. When neighbors show up to oppose a proposed wind farm, the opposition is just as tangible as when they turn out to oppose a nuclear developer. Until the SRA can bring itself to show up to these public meetings and stand up to a roomful of angry neighbors on behalf of a renewables developer, its support for renewables will remain at the 30,000-foot level, unless it is has the pleasurable task of speaking to sympathetic groups.

That brings me to my next point: People are happy to check the box that says “all of the above” when it comes to energy. When you ask them to list what they wouldn’t mind living next to, the answer winds up being “none of the above.” Public process is a crucial component of democracy and can be used to obstruct as well as accomplish. The promoters of energy sources of any kind need to keep in mind that sometimes, their strongest opponents will be the people they are trying to serve.

While I risk upsetting people in the building industry,  I support recent legislation by Rep. John “Bert” Stevenson, R-Rupert, intended to charge new homes and businesses a fee for electrical system expansion.

The development industry will likely oppose this measure, but it would be shortsighted of them to do so. Idaho Power is in a near-continuous state of asking the PUC for rate increases, in part to extend power lines and build more power plants.  This isn’t fair to existing customers and it reduces opportunities for new businesses that want to set up here. Idaho Power can’t raise its rates enough to effectively deliver power, so our region has to turn away prospective industries because we can’t supply them with electricity. Existing residents are asked to pay for newcomers. The system doesn’t serve anyone very well.

A better system (what I understand Stevenson is proposing) would be  similar to how cities charge for sewer hookups. Your monthly sewer bill is strictly for maintenance and operation – none of it goes for capacity expansion. When a new home hooks up to Boise City’s sewer system, though, the developer must pay $3,150, which goes into a fund for future treatment plant expansions and new lines. That keeps the city from charging existing customers for growth, yet growth can happen because the city can fund it.

Imagine if, in the Fall of 2007, two major employers could have relocated here, because Idaho Power had a chest of money collected from impact fees and specifically set aside for new growth. Idaho Power would have been in a much better position to step forward with a plan to accommodate the new industries. The same building industry that might oppose these fees would profit greatly from the new homes and businesses that would result.

The Public Utilities Commission said Stevenson’s measure could help utilities recover costs of some growth-related capital expansion, though existing customers should bear some of the increases when facilities are expanded. That’s fair enough. The Ada County Highway District’s impact fees, first levied in 1992, aren’t intended to cover the complete costs of growth.

Gov. Butch Otter has been criticized as being cool to Idaho’s tech sector, instead favoring old-school businesses like ag, lumber and mining, even as those make up a dwindling part of the state’s economy.

Otter possibly drove a spike through the heart of those assertions – literally – by pounding a spike into a Western Ada County field to symbolically kick off a visionary plan to make a Silicon Valley-style development.  ESTech ( Eagle Star Technology Corridor) would be a business park on nearly 80,000 acres of land that would house a variety of technological companies and be a local effort by government in both Eagle and Star. A group of businesses seeking to make Idaho a destination for tech industries hatched the idea and Otter has signed on in support.

Otter said there is money in the Department of Commerce to help pay for infrastructure like water and sewage, which is also good to hear. There are several obstacles, however. Idaho Power has trouble providing much new electricity and there will be transportation issues to work out as well. Given the current state of the credit markets, financing will be hard to come by. If the governor is too far ahead of the Legislature on this issue, which is very likely, he might face some opposition; it isn’t clear to me, however, how much support he would need from the Legislature.

From an urban planning perspective, it would be better to use the many vacant commercial properties in the area, but that may not be possible due to the need to concentrate the industry.

The vision would also diversify Idaho’s technology industry, which has been heavy on manufacturing and lighter on software development.  But with Micron and HP shedding jobs, diversification is essential.

Who’d a thunk it – a company that makes solar panels is facing production problems because it can’t get enough electricity, according to the Idaho Business Review.

Pocatello is looking forward to Hoku Materials’ $390 million polysilicon plant to bring jobs, boost the tax base and spin off other companies.

The problem is that, once again, Idaho Power can’t ante up electricity, putting Hoku in a bind because it needs about as much energy as Micron (around 80 megawatts).

“Those sized customers come along seldom for us,” Ric Gale, Idaho Power’s vice president of regulatory affairs, told the IBR. “So they created some challenges.”

These sized customers come around every few years, actually. The Statesman reported that two large prospective employers in 2007 said no to the Treasure Valley and took with them more than 2,000 potential jobs, mainly because Idaho Power couldn’t supply power.

Idaho Power is looking at buying electricity out-of-state, but still has no plans for an in-state base load generation plant, instead hoping other producers can come up with 300 megawatts. To its credit, IP is also working on adding transmission capacity, which is in very short supply. Several wind and geothermal projects have gone up in Idaho recently, but that power is heading out-of-state.

Disclosure: one of my clients is Alternate Energy Holdings Inc. , which is proposing to build a large advanced nuclear reactor in Elmore County. I’m sure AEHI would be happy to sell affordable power for Idaho industries and we look forward to meeting that demand.