Solar power heating up in Idaho


BOISE, Idaho (AP) - Idaho is going green whether it wants to or not.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission in the last several months has approved agreements with 13 solar power projects.

A combination of federal regulations, tax incentives, cheaper solar panels and a rate-calculating method developed by the commission itself has made solar power economically attractive.

But commissioners and Idaho Power Co. officials say the projects could end up costing ratepayers more because utilities will face uncertainties by being forced by federal rules to integrate power from a source that fluctuates with the sun.

"There's a point where we can't continue to take intermittent power without harming our customers," said Idaho Power spokesman Brad Bowlin.

The 13 projects spread across southern Idaho add up to about 400 megawatts. That's enough to power up to 400,000 homes.

The Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, created in 1978 is intended to promote alternative resources. It requires power companies to buy electricity at a state commission-approved rate from qualifying small power production facilities.

The Idaho commission in a 69-page decision in December 2012 set those rates based on a methodology that paid more during peak demand times and when other power producing sources, mainly hydro, lagged.

That shifted the renewable energy field in Idaho away from wind power toward solar power. That's because, experts say, Idaho is windy in the spring and fall. In the spring, hydro projects produce plenty of energy for the region, and in the fall energy demands are reduced.

Solar power hits its peak in the summer, a time when Idaho residents turn on air conditioners.

"It wasn't too long after that (2012) case that solar power companies began enquiring," said commission spokesman Gene Fadness. "It gave some developers some certainty as to how much they would be paid."

Another factor is a tax break for solar power worth up to 30 percent of the cost of a project. That tax break is set to expire at the end of 2016, and companies must have at least part of their projects up and running before the deadline if they want the tax credit.

"Creating a profit incentive to produce clean energy is not a bad thing," said Joe Miller, an attorney and former Idaho Public Utilities Commission member from 1987 to 1995 who now represents Ketchum-based Intermountain Energy Partners.

The company has seven of the solar projects. Miller said that the price Idaho Power will pay for solar power is based on the 2012 decision and is equal to the price the utility would pay if it produced the power itself.

Idaho Power under federal regulations has to buy that solar power. Currently, the company produces about 1,700 megawatts from hydro projects, 1,100 megawatts from coal plants, and 750 megawatts from natural gas. It has a smattering of smaller power sources as well, including biomass projects and geothermal.

Wind power generates about 675 megawatts, with about 580 of that from PURPA projects.

The company said the problem with wind and solar power is its intermittent nature and how the new projects disrupt the company's 20-year planning process.

Phil DeVol, the company's resource planning leader, said the company doesn't need to add more power producing sources until 2021, yet it will have to accommodate a burst of solar power if the projects are built.

"That's a real challenge predicting what that market value is 10 years down the road," DeVol said. "That's one of the concerns that we have."

The falling price of solar panels is another driving factor in the solar project increase, experts said. The solar panels are about the size of a desk top, and one of the projects calls for 380,000 of them about 20 miles southwest of Mountain Home. The enormous size of the projects even causes concern for conservation groups who prefer solar to coal.

"That's a lot of land that's going to be covered in solar panels," said Ben Otto of the Idaho Conservation League. But he said the planned projects so far are on private land in areas without significant wildlife value.

"We have to balance this desire for clean energy with protecting the wildlife habitat that we care about," he said. "These solar projects strike the right balance."

Southern Idaho is considered a resource rich area for solar developers, so much so there's concern that solar power could ultimately produce more energy than Idaho can use or Idaho Power can absorb. That's why the Idaho Conservation League is backing two proposed transmission lines in southern Idaho to export power to surrounding states.

"From our perspective - we're an environmental group - we need to find a way to produce power that reduces pollution," Otto said.

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