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Struggling Idaho solar plant protests utility’s aim to cut off power after it missed payment

A struggling plant in southeastern Idaho that hopes to produce material for solar panels fears Idaho Power Co. will shut off its electricity after it missed a payment.

Hoku Materials Inc., which has survived so far with help from Chinese financiers, said Dec. 30 that Idaho’s biggest utility threatened to cut off power to its unfinished Pocatello plant after the company missed a payment.

It lodged a formal protest with Idaho Public Utilities Commission regulators after getting a termination of service notice. The Honolulu-based company said it has told Idaho Power that it can’t pay its November power bill until January due to cash flow problems.

The would-be polysilicon maker said losing power would delay the Pocatello plant’s commissioning and expose infrastructure to freezing as winter sets in. Southeastern Idaho’s hopes that Hoku’s $390 million plant will eventually add hundreds of green-energy jobs to the local economy have been replaced by uncertainty over whether the project will survive.

“If service is terminated, these high value systems may freeze, causing irreparable and material damage to Hoku’s plant assets,” the company’s lawyers told utility regulators in their complaint. “Any damage would need to be repaired, at additional cost, prior to continuing with the commissioning and operation of the plant.”

An Idaho Power spokeswoman didn’t immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Hoku has said it plans to hire hundreds of workers to help make polysilicon for solar panels.

But it struggled to raise funds to complete the facility.

In March, it received the second installment of a $50 million loan from majority owner Tianwei New Energy Holdings Co. of China that has helped keep the company afloat.

As the company’s share price has plunged to well below $1, from a 52-week high of $3.24, the company’s management has been in turmoil, too.

Earlier this month, Hoku announced that its chief financial officer was resigning. Its net loss for the three months ending Sept. 30 increased four-fold from the year earlier to nearly $8 million, as costs to commission the plant rose and it paid $3.5 million to Idaho Power to fulfill its electrical service agreement.

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