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Reader Comment: Coal’s Time is Over

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Carbon pollution harms human health and the environment and is the greatest contributor to climate change. Power plants are the largest sources of carbon pollution. Coal burning produces the greatest amount of power plant pollution.

Coal plants are financial liabilities, as well. So utilities across this nation and world are closing coal plants or converting to different fuels for cleaner, affordable electricity generation. Sadly, Idaho’s largest electric utility is refusing to embrace the future.

In December, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission accepted Idaho Power Co.’s plan to spend $130 million to upgrade emissions controls to continue the life of the Jim Bridger coal plant in Wyoming. However, the commission stipulated that the utility may not rate-base the upgrades now — meaning it cannot automatically add those costs to consumers’ bills. “Because of the uncertain future of coal-fired generation,” the commission said, “we find it unreasonable to prematurely commit ratepayer dollars to support Idaho Power’s investment.”

Idaho Power says it must burn coal until new replacement technologies develop. But plentiful alternatives are available, including a suite of energy conservation and zero-emissions generation technologies.

In its 2010 paper, “Energy Efficiency: 30 Years of Smart Energy Choices,” the Northwest Power and Conservation Council reports that energy efficiency met about half the region’s growth in electricity demand since 1980. The Council — the region’s official power planning agency — found that energy savings have cost an average of just over 2 cents per kilowatt-hour. That’s well below the cost of power from any form of generation, including hydro, which Bonneville Power Administration provides to its public utility customers for about 3 cents per kWh.

The council found that the Northwest has much more energy efficiency to be captured. But Idaho Power’s commitment to energy efficiency and demand-side management programs (such as cycling customers’ air conditioners on hot days) was questioned by Idaho’s utility regulators in a recent case.

Idaho’s 2012 energy plan says utilities’ first priority for new resources should be conservation, energy efficiency and demand response. The second priority is renewable energy.

According to the Idaho Office of Energy Resources, the state’s “abundant renewable energy resources continue to fill a critical role in creating and maintaining a clean energy future.” Renewable energy projects create jobs for Idahoans. The Renewable Northwest Project reports more than $1.8 billion in renewable energy investments and more than 1,000 megawatts of installed capacity in Idaho since 1998. In addition to producing low-carbon power, these Idaho renewable projects have generated more than $9.3 million in public revenue and created an estimated 1,600 jobs.

Contrast those growing economic benefits with the murky economics of coal. Just recently, Montana’s NorthWestern Energy submitted bids for PPL Montana’s 11 hydroelectric projects and two coal plants. NorthWestern bid $400 million for both the hydro and coal, and $740 million for just the hydro! The company considered the coal-fired plants a $340 million liability because of anticipated greenhouse gas regulation and the costs of shutting down the plants and remediating the sites. In early January, the Montana Public Service Commission approved a $900 million purchase price for the hydro plants only.

Idaho Power needs to read the writing on the wall and work aggressively for clean and affordable electricity. Achieving a coal-free, energy-efficient future will require changes by the utility and possibly in state law and regulations.

Mary McGown, Ph.D., is the Idaho Caucus Chairwoman of the Northwest Energy Coalition and the League of Women Voters of Idaho representative to the NWEC board. NWEC is a coalition of more than 100 environmental, civic, human service organizations, progressive utilities and businesses in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Alaska and British Columbia that advocate a clean and affordable energy future for the region, www.nwenergy.org.

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