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Idaho Power, Boise City plan ‘renewable’ future, but what does that mean?

photo of solar field

With renewable energy commitments from Boise and Idaho Power, Idahoans may see more solar fields like this one near Boise. Photo courtesy of Sierra Club.

In coordinated announcements, the city of Boise and Idaho Power each announced intentions to move away from carbon-based energy sources such as oil and gas, though for each of them it will be decades away.

Idaho Power announced on March 26 a goal to provide 100% clean energy by 2045. The Boise City Council voted on April 2 to adopt a plan to move the city’s electricity to 100% renewable sources by 2035.

As of December, 100 cities and towns had committed to using 100% renewable energy, according to the Sierra Club, which has been spearheading the effort.

The commitments are to some degree aspirational; neither Boise nor Idaho Power will be punished if they fail to meet their goals. This is particularly true because the commitments are predicated on technological breakthroughs, such as improved battery storage, happening in the meantime.

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Ben Otto

On the other hand, research from organizations such as Bloomberg New Energy Finance has recently found that batteries collocated with solar and wind projects are starting to compete on a cost basis with coal- and gas-fired generation, said Ben Otto, energy associate for the Idaho Conservation League.

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Darrel Anderson

That said, in the meantime Idaho Power has reached agreements to stop using coal-fired generators in Wyoming and Nevada, and to buy up to 120 MW of power from Jackpot Holdings, which is building a solar field scheduled to be constructed near Twin Falls by 2022, said Darrel Anderson, CEO. The likely scenario is that it will be out of its final coal-fired plant by the mid 2030s, he said.

While Idaho Power hasn’t announced plans to shut down its gas-fired Langley Gulch power plant, in New Plymouth, it will be nearing the end of its useful life by the deadline anyway, Anderson said.

Though other utilities committed to 100% renewable energy before Idaho Power, it is still among the first, and the first in the Northwest, according to Zack Waterman, state director for the Idaho chapter of the Sierra Club. Moreover, those other utilities are in states with renewable portfolio standards, while Idaho Power is responding to customer demand, he said.

While the Boise and Idaho Power announcements were coordinated, they differ on a couple of points. First, Boise committed to 100% “renewable sources” by 2035, while Idaho Power committed to 100% “clean energy” by 2045.

Second, Boise and Idaho Power committed to different things. The primary difference is that Idaho Power doesn’t rule out using nuclear power in the future, such as with the small modular reactor project under development at Idaho National Laboratory. But because Idaho Power doesn’t foresee using nuclear power anytime soon, the two entities aren’t dwelling on the distinction.

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Steve Burgos

“From a policy perspective, we don’t view [nuclear power] as renewable,” said Steve Burgos, public works director for the city of Boise. “It’s not something we considered, because it doesn’t exist within the service.”

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Jason Thackston

Another major power company, Avista — which services North Idaho as far south as Grangeville — worked with Spokane last year on its 100% renewable energy goal, which the city adopted in August, but stopped short of making such a commitment itself. However, like Idaho Power, the company already generates more than half its electricity from renewable sources such as hydro, solar, wind and biomass, and has started several renewable energy projects in recent months, said Jason Thackston, senior vice president of energy resources for the Spokane-based company.

In some states, such as Wyoming, legislatures have taken steps to keep utilities from stopping using coal, and the Idaho Legislature has limited cities from making other environmental regulations such as eliminating plastic bags. However, nothing’s been said thus far about the Idaho Legislature stepping in. “Idaho Power is making this announcement because it’s what customers are demanding,” Otto said. If the Legislature wants to get involved in the business decisions of the biggest company in the state, “they can have a field day,” he said.

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