Idaho has long enjoyed the benefit of low power costs. As the Treasure Valley’s population grows, Idaho utilities are looking for ways to keep up with the growth and to keep power affordable. Researchers, interest groups and utilities are also exploring how to expand the investment in alternative energy sources such as solar, wind, and geothermal.
At IBR’s August 16 breakfast series on energy in Idaho, six panelists who are experts in the energy field spoke about the successes and challenges they face in keeping Idaho powered up, and about the future of the state’s energy portfolio.
A growing panel of energy choices nationally and in Idaho
What’s happening is people are looking for different ways to generate electricity. There’s a lot of self-generation going on, which impacts utilities who are primarily used to generating the electricity. That’s one thing. There’s pressure on emissions to change the way energy is generated; that’s another pressure that’s occurring. There are folks who don’t want to change and there are folks who are encouraging change. Overall, there is a lot happening that’s impacting the local utility and national utilities.
As a utility, the way that we have survived for over 100 years is that we’re flexible and we adapt. We certainly will push what we think is best for customers and shareholders, but we have to be able to do other things.
From a cost perspective we have some of the lowest rates in the nation. We’re about 20 percent cheaper than the average rate. We just had a rate decrease this year, of 7 percent.
We have one of the cleanest portfolios in the nation right now. Fifty percent of our energy comes from clean hydroelectric sources. Another 20 percent comes from long-term purchases: solar, wind, and geothermal. We do have plans to move away from our coal plants, at least two of the three of them over the next couple years. We feel like we check that clean box too, at least in the baseline.
In terms of how we’re going to move forward, I’ve heard this said before and I’m going to say it out loud, I’m not even sure I should, but the energy industry is kind of sexy. It’s actually changing quite a bit. With that change, we have to keep an eye on it, and we’re focused on three things, first of all, making sure that our employees are being as innovative as possible, really thinking laterally about how to solve problems. The other thing is the grid, the platform that makes all of it work. We have a pretty robust grid modernization plan that’s set to make sure that all these different new technologies that are coming to Idaho can be plugged and played the way that customers want.
And then one of the things that you’re going to see a lot of is storage and how storage plays into this moving forward.
Energy storage and its role in the power balance
I certainly can give you some very interesting examples from where I’m from before, Hawaii.
The Big Island and Maui are almost 100 percent renewable, which means wind and solar can provide all the needs on the two islands. But the infrastructure is so weak that we still cannot turn it on for all the five Hawaiin islands. We need to conform with the compliances, and we need to have a facility that you can depend on to provide reliable service. Wind can die down in about a minute, that’s the loss of about 50 percent of the power at any point in time, and you have no way of understanding how to manage that. It’s not like hydro where for long-term stability you can anticipate what kind of power you can generate hour by hour.
With transportation beginning to be electrified, the demand side also becomes very sporadic as well, because you don’t know when and where people are going to charge their vehicles and what kind of demand that it will be.
With that in mind, storage has become critical. Without storage, the whole grid’s stability becomes questionable and all the cost and the benefit that you have in the past can not be relied on anymore.
In my department we’re actually looking at all the types of battery technologies, all the way to the charging infrastructure and integrating including cybersecurity, because people can use your apps on your phone and easily get into the grid today. When you’re charging your vehicle, you’re connected to the grid; your app actually could have access to the grid and that becomes a significant issue.
We recently showed a group of utility managers and CEO’s how we can actually break into the device from charger stations, from vehicles, and that really alarmed them. It’s much more complicated than just a technical issue about how to manage a grid and the power supply; it’s also how to protect that asset.
The area that I’m involved with that doesn’t get a lot of attention is the demand side. You have this fundamental model about the grid, which is we get to use it anytime, anywhere, no matter what, and the utilities have to respond. I think that’s something that’s worth challenging and worth rethinking. It all falls in this broad area called demand response, which we have in Idaho.
Idaho Power uses the Cool Credit program as an example of that. To my mind and to the research community, that’s the tip of the iceberg. Once we have this smart grid and this internet of things, there’s a huge potential to coordinate things that are what we’d call non-time sensitive, such as thermostatically controlled growth which is electric water, freezer, refrigerator and your home thermostat. You move through a couple degrees variation between when the AC turns on and off so you’re used to that already. Bumping that in a coordinated way a few tenths of a degree can make a huge difference in accommodating things like when the wind suddenly dies, so you don’t need a days’ worth of storage to accommodate that. But you need 15 or 20 minutes headway so the utilities can scramble and fix that. The demand side can be a big part of that.
I’d like to comment a little bit on the energy storage piece.
More traditional geothermal is being looked at in a way to almost treat the earth as its own battery.
Whether you’re storing heat or storing energy in a geothermal reservoir, or figuring out how to conduct all those wind and solar panels to accommodate some of those changes in the demand side, there’s actually a good bit of research going in that direction – not just pulling the heat from the earth but actually putting some back in. But there are some round trip efficiencies that Boryann and I were talking about before we started, and there’s a pretty fertile area of research that’s going on to try to really optimize this system.
There is actually a demonstration program using geothermal energy for storage going on right now through the Department of Energy. The City of Portland is testing one right now where they are actually injecting heat to harvest that later, and there are other similar programs going on in New York and Illinois. They are only in their first year, but they are showing promise.
Storage is really huge to the future of energy in this country and in the world. With the utility, we have colleagues who buy and sell electricity in increments a day ahead, an hour ahead, 15 minutes or less. With the solar eclipse a year ago, we had to prepare for the eventual waning of that solar. At totality there was none and then it started to kick back up. You can’t just sit back and let that happen; you have to fill in the gap and pull back and that’s what these traders do. Energy storage would make it a lot easier and less chaotic to manage the overall energy distribution.
Today, when you look at solar, wind and everything that’s still not quite ready yet for the grid operation, you don’t really just look at the energy production costs. You don’t look at the storage costs. I can tell you that with the storage costs now versus 10 years ago, you will be surprised now that batteries are affordable. But the cost of the battery isn’t the problem; it’s how would it manage the energy and power transfer to make sure that it can be seamlessly integrated? That is the problem today.
Nobody knows how to pay for that. Thesolar and the batteries are not that expensive. The most expensive part is the integration of that with the power electronics.
I agree that storage is a great technology for our grid in terms of the cost right now, but you have to look at what rate you’re paying Idaho Power. It is definitely not cost-effective. It may be in the future, in fact storage has decreased about 80 percent in the last eight years so we’ve seen great strides in cost reductions in storage through Tesla and some other companies. But in terms of cost-effectiveness right now in Idaho Power, it’s not there and it’s not going to be there for a little while. But it could get there for sure. The reason I wanted to mention this is we are running numbers constantly trying to find ways to use storage on our system and at that this time it’s not the best approach.
Adam’s got a really good point and it’s that the grid isn’t this monolithic thing. It’s very geographically distributed and very constrained in various areas, so what’s experienced by Idaho Power could be very different in other places.
About four or five years ago I took a group of students to the Kodiak Island in Alaska to do energy assessments on salmon processing plants. That island is 100 percent renewable. They have a couple of really nice hydro plants up in the mountains, seven GE turbines on the hillside, and they’ve bought a bank of batteries and they were still paying for too much diesel – because that’s what you do if you don’t have any other natural resources. They had a big diesel-powered municipal crane on the municipal wharf and someone had the idea to make it electric and they said “Are you crazy it’s going to use more electricity.” Well, it did but it also integrated a giant flywheel on the base of it that became the heartbeat of the grid and updated the energy storage and they saved money. So there are places now where storage is not just feasible, it’s the right answer. That’s going to continually evolve as we go through the next decades.
I just had a follow up question for Adam: You said the cost came down by 80 percent. So what’s the next hurdle that need to be overcome to make it viable? Is there a technology that will drive that?
There are a lot of debates and they disagree whether it’s going to be lithium ion or some other technology. You guys will know this better than me, you guys are in the thick of it. Right now lithium ion appears to be the technology that’s going to be the technology of the future, but I also know there are a lot of different areas and different types of storage that universities and INL and other organizations are looking to master and then get those costs commercialized.
From our perspective, it is cost. I’d be interested to get John‘s opinion on this, because you were in Australia and New Zealand, and when you go to those types of places you do see storage start to work out a little bit. I was just looking at their rates recently; they are 30 cents plus per kilowatt hour. Our rates for residential customers are between nine and 10 cents. So in a lot of ways, and I have had companies tell us this, we are little bit of a victim of our own success in terms of our rates;, because we have those low rates a lot of these technologies just don’t work. I think cost still is the primary driver, but again the costs are getting better and I do see that as part of our portfolio in the future just when in the future is the question.
Australia and New Zealand have similar fuel mixes to Idaho. Australia has a fair amount of hydro and New Zealand is almost all hydro and growing renewable. They were also very deregulated markets. The grids are managed centrally and that’s the part that’s regulated heavily by the government, but all the power producers and retailers are independent. As a homeowner, you get to choose your retailer and compare different rate structures.
Nobody’s smart enough to do that and it turns out that’s part of the problem, but in this highly unregulated market they pay three times as much as we do for electricity. So when you saw about a year ago Tesla went in and built the biggest battery in the world in South Australia and in that environment, it’s a really good thing to have and it really helps stabilize the grid and it wasn’t just because of the renewables. It’s just that that’s a tough grid. It’s not really a grid in Australia; it’s a loop, because everybody lives on the coast. So physically, it’s a very difficult grid to handle. It’s worked out well there and proven to be – if you listen to Tesla – much better.
We are in favor of a balanced energy portfolio. I think that putting all of your eggs in one basket, whatever that is, is dangerous for us as a society and I think the move from coal to gas-fired generation has increased a lot of gas-fired generation so I think it’s good to have a balance. But also I think you have to look at the economics of things. Our business has changed dramatically in the last 10 years from a supply point of view. With the changes with technology-driven exploration, the amount of gas available is significantly higher and the price is down and I mean in real dollars, not inflation-adjusted dollars. We are paying significantly less today than we were 11 years ago for gas. You talk about economics of battery storage, and in this market I can tell you that from a home heating point of view we are still, even with cheap power prices, 20 percent to 30 percent cheaper than the low Idaho Power prices to heat your home.
We’re seeing a lot of increase in gas consumption as people try to use this resource we have domestically and our domestic situation has changed. We talk about energy independence, we currently are exporting a significant amount of gas to Mexico and to Asia, where just 10 short years ago we imported a significant amount of our gas. From an energy independence point of view, it has changed. You know, nuclear is out of fashion but I think nuclear power has a place for us as a country too, going forward.
At the Idaho National Laboratory, we are not choosing technology. The cost is definitely the driver for the market and we cannot ignore cost. But at the National Lab we work with the industry, and also look at the costs in a very different perspective. We look at it as the whole supply chain issue. So it’s not just the utility, not just the gas or other operations; we look at the whole nation’s needs and where the gap in reducing the cost could be the driver for the market.
That’s why I mention electronics, because that’s often not really in the calculation of the cost. When you begin to see more and more penetration of solar and wind and the electric vehicle into our society, the operation cost is not as simple as saying, “Well, I’m going to buy a battery and this and that and put them together and they’re going to work.” The costs really add up that way. So we need to look at it as the whole supply chain issue and how the costs have been reduced through the process, not just by one technology or one business sector. I just want to make sure we have the right context about that.
Some states require alternative energy development: Why not Idaho?
When you look at a metropolitan area versus a rural area like Idaho, it’s really very different. You really have to look at things on a different scale and from a different perspective. The cost savings in Idaho would be very different from Seattle, for example, or California or even Hawaii.
Trade issues and alternative energy development
The most recent tariffs that Trump placed on solar I think will have a little bit of an impact. All of the projections I’ve seen have said that you are looking at maybe a 5 percent to 10 percent reduction in that business over the next five or so years. In terms of renewables, that train has left the station in a lot of ways, so I just don’t see a major impact.
The big question that was going on at the industry is what is Trump going to do with the solar energy investment tax credit? Is he going to leave it there or not? It’s a federal tax credit that gives you a dollar-for-dollar credit for 30 percent off, and so far he’s not done anything with it. There was some debate about whether that was going to happen. If that had happened I think it would have a pretty significant impact on the industry. I think the tariffs he has right now, which are 30 percent on the actual panels, it definitely has an impact but I don’t think that it will slow down industry in a major way.
It’s a little too early to tell if the tariff on foreign solar panels is improving the U.S. solar industry. Most of the panels that were purchased in the U.S., at least a fair majority were from China so I guess by virtue of that you would think that it’s going to increase the U.S. panel cost, but it’s hard to say. In terms of steel tariffs, we’re going to have a little bit of impact. We use a decent amount of steel in our system with our transmission lines and distribution lines, but it sounds like in terms of Idaho Power and rates it might impact our rates in the hundred to thousands range but not in the millions so we do expect steel to go up and we expect to pay a little bit more because of that.
Is alternative energy becoming more cost effective?
I’m going to push back on characterizing alternative energy as just another energy source. I think that has arrived. It’s really hard to do a head-to-head comparison of cost effectiveness, but you know if you look at the cost per kilowatt hour for a solar project or a wind project, they’re really driving down and they are very cost-effective. But with few exceptions like Kodiak Island and Hawaii you really can’t build a whole grid around that. You can’t say, “We’re going to replace a natural gas plant with a solar plant.” So, it’s part of this big evolution. So yes, it’s cost effective but you’ve got to be careful in making those comparisons.
Storage is part of the equation, but I would like to see more discussion about just how the grid operates. I get the advantage that I don’t have to run a utility, I get to sit around and think. You know it’d be interesting to imagine what our society, what our grid would look like if we hadn’t had any fossil fuels, if it just didn’t evolve that way. I think the answer is we wouldn’t still be sitting around in mud huts you know, throwing spears at wild animals, we would have a developed technology site. It’s just the grid wouldn’t look like the one it looks like now. The bigger question is, “What should the grid look like 100 years from now?” That’s an important part of the discussion.
So, just focusing on just storage and solar is really important because it’s what we’re dealing with now, but I think we also want to have a longer horizon on that one.
The storage has different contexts. It depends on what it really serves. We’re still going through a lot of assessment right now. If you put a storage on the transmission side, on the distribution side, on the end user side, that impact is really different. It becomes very statistically difficult to assess the value and the cost. We are still in the process right now of trying to understand where is the technology we have today.
That’s key issue: not really the cost of the system, but where you can put the system in the right place so it can reduce the cost.
Everything is evolving all the time; 10 years ago we worried about electric vehicle charging as a problem, and now we’re talking about an autonomous vehicle where we have no data to validate any model or theory.
It’s “Can it make a profit? Will it reduce the cost for the consumer?” That matters. So, we don’t want to assess the technology based on the cost of the technology. What we look at is whether it will create value and that’s the most difficult part.
Transmission and its role
In addition to storage renewable energy, is how we get energy around the grid. Just having the transmission capabilities to move renewable energy from one side of the country to the other when it’s needed through transmission, I think is going to be a big part on whether renewable energy continues to thrive in our industry.
There’s a huge amount of work at the department of energy, both in the national labs and outside that, on smart grid modernization. Rob just touched on the micro-grid issue and it’s sort of the alternative to what Adam just said. The micro-grid idea is what happens if we start isolating sections of the grid and letting them be more self-sufficient. They’re still connected but have some local generation. Instead of just having one big massive interconnected thing, we’d have a network of a lot of more self-sufficient ones. That’s a big interesting question that’s still on the horizon.
The state of geothermal energy
There are a lot of interesting areas in geothermal on the federal, national, or even international level. Even in Idaho, we have the blessing of a low energy cost. With geothermal, by and large the upfront costs are a lot higher; it’s harder to get deep penetration. You’re drilling $10 or $20 million wells, just to see if it will work.
If you take a bigger-picture, longer-term look, geothermal is looking at two primary areas. One is direct use. For example, as we have in Boise’s district heating systems, whether you’re storing heat or using it to offset other heating costs, there’s those kinds of programs. The direct use is really taking off all through the world, so you’ll see large parts of western Europe are really integrating this between Paris, part of Switzerland, it’s a growing area.
The area I primarily work in is essentially bringing super-heated water out of the rocks. There are two main areas; hydrothermal, if you’re lucky enough to see us hot springing through a well next to it, pull the water out and you’ll make some electricity. The biggest resource is in the enhanced geothermal system, where we’re essentially trying to create a heat exchanger in the ground. We’ll drill several wells and create cracks one way or another and connect walls together and actually essentially try to harvest that heat. The resource base for that is hundreds or thousands of gigawatts depending on what the projections are. There is enough energy base there, essentially if you get a large chunk of the energy portfolio in the U.S. right now, geothermal is less than 1 percent, maybe 2 percent.
There’s a lot of room for growth and there’s a lot of heat in the ground, and getting the heat out of the ground for beneficial use is the challenge there.
There was a competition over the last few years to house a fuel laboratory for doing these enhanced and engineered geothermal systems. There were five initial candidate sites; one of them actually is in Idaho, the Snake River plain. I led a consortium, mostly Idaho-based, to try to test that there. Unfortunately, the Idaho site wasn’t selected to move forward. This laboratory now is actually located in central Utah. They’re drilling wells there right now, and I think there’s a lot of people in Idaho and other places that have a role in that. I expect to see some pretty interesting results over the next four to five years from that program. Hopefully we’ll culminate with a demonstration that overcomes the engineering barriers that keeps the private sector out of it, for this to become a viable commercial technology.
The future of power costs in Idaho
Adam Richins: There are a few things that could impact cost. When policy forces certain technologies like you see in California, if it ever happened in Idaho I think you could see some costs related to that. A lot of technologies we’re talking about, the micro-grid, storage, geothermal, I think they will have their day. Again, it’s a question of when. I think if those technologies get pushed on Idaho too early we could see some impacts from a rate perspective.
We see continued low gas prices in the near and medium term future. Gas commodity prices decrease when we’re buying gas for the future. From a tariff point of view, we do use a lot of steel and we’re seeing an increase in steel pricing and some of our pipe isn’t available in the U.S. so we’re looking for some exemptions from the tariffs to get some of the pipe that’s manufactured outside of the country. From a tariff point of view we are seeing higher steel costs.
The big question with gas from our perspective is obviously what type of CO2 emissions are related to gas and is it better to electrify a system on a cleaner grid than to continue on the gas front? Those are the conversations that Scott and I will have in the future. You have to look at price and then what is actually being burned as well.
In our last Integrated Resource Plan, there was a portion of gas in 2030 but the biggest portion of that was called the Boardman to Hemingway transmission project. It’s a 300-mile transmission project that runs from outside of Boise to Portland, Oregon. The purpose of that is actually so we don’t have to build anything. There is an abundance of energy in the Northwest in the summertime. It’s largely renewable, largely hydro, it’s priced right. In general, it’s around two cents a kilowatt hour. Our plan is not to actually build anything in the future but instead not build a resource, instead have this transmission line that can allow us to go up to the Pacific Northwest and pull that energy down during peak times in Idaho.
The national grid has been adding natural gas resources and natural gas power plants. As the coal plants shut down, they’re by and large being replaced by natural gas. I think the question, and Scott mentioned this that they’re forecasting lower prices for the foreseeable future, it’s important to remember that the last 10 years has been an anomaly in the natural gas market. The question is, is this the new normal or are we going to go back to it being one of the most volatile commodities on the market? We obviously hope it doesn’t, but if it does that will impact the electric grid and electric prices much more than it did 20 years ago because gas is so much more a part of the generation mix now.
This supply situation is significantly different today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. We’re seeing a lot of problems in natural gas pricing. The supply can change; it’s a commodity and commodity pricing can always get more volatile than it is, but the natural gas supply situation is significantly different today than it was 15 years ago. I’m not saying that we don’t see volatility in the gas market, because it’s a commodity and all commodities historically have been volatile and continue to be.
Moving away from coal
We have pledged to move away from coal.What we’re trying to do is integrate the solar and the wind and the geothermal that is being generated outside of our company at the same time we keep our hydro fleet of 17 hydroelectric plants at peak efficiency. The natural gas plant near the Oregon border is a plant we use to meet demand and to meet basic load. We have two what are called peaker plants, those are in Mountain Home. We turn those on when we need additional power.
It’s the natural gas that’s made it and the pricing which we’re fortunate of, has made it easier to integrate and to pledge to leave the coal. Prices can change and vary. We are happy to see that solar technology and wind technology is coming down in price, that makes it easier for us to integrate and not pass on higher costs. We’re going in a good direction right now, but everything is subject to change.
I would just add that coal is a base load resource. You can turn it on and off when you want. The real question on what price impact that will have, is what will we replace it with and what are those prices? In a lot of ways, it needs to be a base load resource too, and that’s why natural gas is coming into play so much. We have a great base load resource in our hydro, 50 percent of our system that we can ramp up and ramp down. It’s really going to depend on what technology takes its place and if it’s natural gas for storage, what are the natural gas prices and what are the storage prices down the road?
Coal has kept us in business for 100 years. There are many factors that made us say you know we’re going to stop using coal generation from two of the three plants that we’re associated with by 2025, which in our business is pretty much next month. It’s right around the corner. One of the things that impacts that is what’s the cost going to be and what other energy is coming on? That’s another area where storage would help us integrate that.
The other thing is, it hasn’t happened yet but there could very well be a carbon tax or carbon cap in trade. A megawatt of coal generation produces twice as much CO2 equivalent emissions as a megawatt of natural gas if you’re burning to generate electricity. Obviously, hydro you don’t have that. If there is a tax or a cap in trade, it’s another good business management decision to say we’re going to reduce the coal because we’re reducing our risk of that happening.
Idaho Public Utilities Commission and limits on wind contracts: have they affected wind development in Idaho?
I do think so. I think the reason for that decision was again, back to cost. Right now, on average we pay about $65 a megawatt hour for our PURPA – Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act – resources. You can go to the market and get them for about $20, about a 70 percent difference in what we pay vs. the market. It was really a cost decision. That doesn’t mean that wind and solar aren’t going to continue to come on our system. I think as we start to figure out the capacity issue you’re going to see more of it and that’s great.
PURPA – a federal law that requires certain qualified facilities to purchase energy – was intended for kind of smaller renewable projects and because of our published rates, we had a decent amount of that energy coming to Idaho over the last five or six years. There’s been some changes there. I think at the end of the day if we can hit the capacity issue, solar and wind are going to continue to be a part of the portfolio.
We have twice as much wind that the average utility does in percentage of our load. We have the average in the nation is about 7 percent and I think we’re pushing about 15 percent for our load. We actually do have a decent amount of wind on our system, almost 800 megawatts.
U.S energy policy vs. energy policy in other nations
From a more myopic look at geothermal in general, United States has been leading that industry and the generation of electricity I think since the 1970’s. The U.S. has the highest amount of geothermal generation. Although some other countries are starting to close the gap a little bit, it’s hugely in the U.S.’s favor. Some of those smaller nations that have a large geothermal resource, New Zealand or Iceland, they may have a higher percentage of their portfolio for geothermal, it’s really they’re landlocked and can’t do much with it. The technology development and the thought leadership I think in the whole space around geothermal is strongly centered around the U.S. We have a pretty large research complex because I think it is and can be a pretty valuable resource.
The U.S. continues to be the leader in the technology development, not so much in the commercialization. I think solar panels are a big example of that. We really developed a lot of that technology and even the manufacturing process. Then China went and took all that away from us through their own unique economic system and managed to flood the market with their panels. But I’ll make a distinction between energy development and energy system operations. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned in micro-grids or the constrained grids out there. They’ve had to learn by necessity to deal with a lot of things that we’re just starting to grapple with. Northern Europe is a big part of that; they’ve got a lot more wind and solar than we have and they’ve figured out how to integrate a lot more of that. We’ve talked about Kodiak Island and Hawaii and these other places that have done really well and I think there’s a lot to be learned.
Don’t miss our next panel discussion!
Breakfast Series: Urban in Idaho – Smart Planning for Future Growth
October 2, 2018
8 a.m., The Grove Hotel
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