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Coal Hearing Begins Important Conversation on Energy Future

By Lisa Grow

Coal is getting a lot of attention in Idaho these days — and that’s a good thing. An important discussion about how our electricity will be generated in the coming decades has begun. Careful, thoughtful planning will ensure we continue to benefit from the reliable, low-cost power we have come to expect.

The next phase of that discussion takes place at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission Monday. Utility regulators will hear public testimony about Idaho Power’s request to spend $130 million on required emission controls on two of the four units at our Jim Bridger coal-fired plant in Wyoming.

This is not, as some have suggested, Idaho Power “doubling down” on coal. The electricity our customers use is some of the cleanest in the country, and it’s getting cleaner. As I testified before the Commission earlier this month, Idaho Power needs a glide path to carry us beyond coal rather than jumping off a cliff that would pose great risk to our customers’ low rates and reliable service.

The Bridger plant provides up to 771 megawatts of power for our customers. That’s more than any of our hydroelectric dams, and enough to power more than half a million homes. Bridger also generates the least expensive non-hydro power on our system.

Shutting it down without replacing that power isn’t an option. To keep the plant running through its projected lifespan, Idaho Power and the plant’s co-owner and operator PacifiCorp must install new emission-control equipment on one generating unit by the end of 2015 and another by the end of 2016 to meet state and federal air-quality rules. All of our plants meet or exceed all air-quality standards and will continue to do so. PacifiCorp already has received regulatory approval in Wyoming and Utah for their share of the costs.

These emission controls lessen environmental impact in the near term and buy time for new technologies to develop that will ultimately replace these units. Think about the energy technology advances over the past decade, and imagine the possibilities for the next decade. Limiting ourselves to today’s technologies leaves us with few good options for replacement. Wind and solar are intermittent, have very low output during our summer peaks, and grid-scale electricity storage is not commercially viable yet.

We need reliable, dispatchable, baseload power, especially in the summer when demand is highest. Replacing that power would require two gas-fired plants larger than the new Langley Gulch plant that cost $400 million. Solar capacity sufficient to reliably replace the plant’s output would be even more expensive. Demand response programs and increased transmission to import power will be part of the solution, but they can’t fully offset our current need for coal generation. These options and others were analyzed in conjunction with third-party experts as part of our long-term planning process. The conclusion: keeping coal online is the best option for our customers right now.

Idaho Power is not proposing to expand the Bridger plant, nor are we asking to extend the operation of the plant past its expected service life. We are seeking a commitment from the Commission that we can recover the cost of these mandatory upgrades, as long as they are determined to be in our customers’ best interests.

Customer rates would not be immediately impacted by the Commission’s approval of our request. After the upgrades were installed and the costs approved, they would be repaid over several years.

Finding reliable replacements for coal will require hard choices and thoughtful planning. We look forward to having that discussion with our customers.

Lisa Grow is Idaho Power’s Senior Vice President of Power Supply.

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