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Updated on September 30, 2012

Ill Winds from Idaho

Flip on a light, turn on your computer or television, pump water or gasoline, take an XRAY, make a photocopy - you have now experienced base load power. It is always available. This is because our electric power comes primarily from reliable, consistent sources such as natural gas, coal, nuclear and even some from oil. Leaving aside for the moment issues of pollution, cost and security base load power is a necessary fact of every day life in this country and most of the world. It is what allows us to have lights against the darkness, comfort in our homes and buildings, industry and commerce, medical facilities, safe running water and entertainment on demand. In one way or another electric power even allows us to operate our transportation systems. The power we need, the load, is dispatched to us as base load power with provisions to dispatch more when demand peaks above predicted levels and to dispatch less when less is needed by spoiling down generators. But always, there is a base load of power available at the flip of a switch. Wind power is intermittent - it is not base load power. Neither is solar power.

Unless we want to return to the mid nineteenth century or earlier, we need base load power. We need a steady and predicatble source of power when we need it, not just when the sun is high or the wind is blowing.

For many years there have been questions raised about how and at what cost we will manage the integration of renewable energy sources such as wind and solar into our electric infrastructure, the grid. Power is needed most in load centers, urban and industrialized areas. A recent example of how this issue reveals itself is the wind power situation in Texas. While the most advantageous locations for developing wind farms are in the open spaces of west Texas, the major load centers for the state are far to the East in places such as Dallas and Houston and along the Gulf coast where there are refineries and other industrial activities as well as large residential populations. This has meant far higher costs for electricity in, say, Austin than what was projected when wind power was on the grow. The costs of transmitting wind over hundreds of miles and more are high and they went unaccounted for when Texas was permitting large wind farms. This same situation is playing out across the entire American mid-west as more and more wind farms are being built in largely unpopulated areas, places such as Idaho. Who pays for the necessary grid upgrades to deliver wind power to where it will be used?

On September 20 of this year the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) issued a ruling in a case from Idaho. The parties to this action are: Idaho Wind Partners (Idaho Wind), Idaho Power (the utility company) and Idaho Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The issue is that Idaho Power sought relief to curtail or reduce its purchase of electric power from Idaho Wind during times of low load.

Idaho Power calimed that it was allowed to do so under provisions of the Public Utilities Regulatory Policy Act (PURPA) a federal statute. Although the utility had enetered into a twenty-year Power Purchase Agrfeement (PPA) with Idaho Wind. It has become clear that there is more wind power being produced at times of light load lowewr demand, than what is needed and in order to buy all the wind power produced it would be ecessary to buy less power than what was contracted for in PPAs with fossil fuel plants and other producers. There is more wind power available when less is needed, for example at night.

The FERC ruling says that Idaho Power must purchase all of the wind power produced and this will mean higher costs for Idaho Power customers. Either the utility will suffer financially, thus diminishing bits ability to service its customers, or the costs will be passed along in higher electric bills. So, once again we see wind power developers and their profits trumping the rights of power consumers. It is simply not sound energy policy to allow this situation to have developed. Wind power developers, along with their banks and investors, stand to lose significant amounts of money without such strange decisions as this. But whose interests are best served?

Land-based wind power has always been touted as an economic boon for utiliuty customers because wind power costs less than other forms of power production, according to its proponents. But is this actually true? Have regulators considered all the possible cost consequences of promoting wind power such as those we see in the Idaho case? This case means that although Idaho Power has contracted with other power producers to purchase certain minimum amounts of power through their PPAs, there will be times when only wind power will be purchased at whatever its full rate of production is. All other producers will see their power loads reduced, or not. If not, the utility will pay for power it cannot use. This cost will inevitably be passed on to consumers - homes, schools, hospitals, factories, offices - everyone.

So, where we might ask is the federal energy policy which reckognizes these issues and deals with them? While FERC and others can argue the intent of PURPA, the winds blow best when they are needed least and the bills keep rising. There has never been, either in congress or the White House, an honest attempt at sorting out the facts and issues of providing for safe, secure, stable and affordable electric for this nation so that no one interest trumps another and so that we are all served as well as we can be. Idaho's situation is a perfect example of good intentions bringing chaos and higher costs.


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