The year 2045 seems like a long way off, but when your goal is trying to ditch 100% of carbon emissions it’s coming up fast.
In 2019, Idaho Power announced a goal of decarbonizing its power sources and keeping the lights on throughout its power generation area with solely renewable sources of energy. The company has a head start, since to 40% of its power comes from hydroelectric dams up and down the state plus other sources, but as of today 20% of its electricity still comes from coal.
Idaho Power Chief Operating Officer Adam Richins said the company is planning to be done with coal-fueled power generation by 2030. To replace that backbone of its power sources, Idaho Power is planning a growing network of solar and wind power bolstered by battery storage. The goal is to create a network where Idaho Power can nimbly switch between power sources across the whole Mountain West to get power to people when and where they need it.
“If we can find a way to do it reliably and affordably sooner than 2045 we are absolutely on board to do that,” Richins said. “2045 is our goal right now. That is 23 years from now and if we can find during that time clean technologies that will affordably help us get there we are on board to do that it’s just a matter that as we make this transition to clean energy in a way that it doesn’t become overly burdensome for our customers and we can do it reliably.”
So, how is this going to work?
The key to building renewable energy is finding a way to keep the lights on 24/7.
When you flick your lights on, that electricity came to you from a power source likely generating electricity at that moment. Whether it’s coal-burning in one of Idaho Power’s plants or the sun shining on an array of solar panels, the power often needs to be generated at the time it’s needed. That’s why coal is so convenient because you can burn it for power around the clock, regardless of the weather or the season.
To address this, Richins said Idaho Power plans to heavily invest in solar and wind energy that come with large amounts of battery storage capacity.
“What we plan to do is tie lithium-ion batteries to that renewable energy,” Richins said. “They are the same batteries you see in cars, just massive batteries stacked on top of each other, and what they do is store the energy from sun and wind we have those batteries through of energy and they release that energy through the three or four hour period when the sun is down but folks are still using a lot of energy.”
Hydroelectricity can already achieve this, but in a more rudimentary way. Dams generate power when water passes through them and spins turbines. In order to store power, dams can close their gates and build up water to release when power is needed, like the peak power generation hours in the evening when the sun is down and everyone is still at home running their air conditioners, televisions and lights.
Richins said coordinating this ability to store water with batteries building up electricity from wind and sun is the way Idaho Power is moving in the future. Another key component is building out two major transmission lines, including a line between its Hemingway Station in the Treasure Valley to eastern Oregon and another to Wyoming, to carry energy between regions as different sources ebb and flow.
Natural gas as a stopgap
There is still the question of how Idaho Power will bridge the energy gap as it builds the new network.
Idaho Power is a joint owner of two coal facilities, one in Nevada and one in Wyoming. It also had a partial ownership in a third coal plant, but the company left that agreement in 2020. The company plans to no longer burn coal at either plant by the end of this decade. Richins said one of those facilities will burn natural gas for a short period of time, with the goal of closing that facility by 2040.
Natural gas burns with far fewer carbon emissions than coal, but it’s not without criticism from environmentalists. Fracking, the process in which natural gas is extracted from deep within the earth, can pollute water sources and cause an increase in earthquakes due to the disruption in the Earth’s crust, environmentalists say. And once its extracted, natural gas still has to either be trucked with CO2 emitting vehicles or moved via pipelines, like the protested Dakota Access Pipeline, to where it can be sold on the open market.
There’s also the question of methane. This gas, the second most common greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, dissipates quicker than CO2, but it is more potent when it is first emitted. Producing natural gas creates methane leaks, but it is unknown exactly how much escapes into the atmosphere every year. The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection is considering a rule requiring the oil and gas industry to track this data, but it has not been instituted yet.
When asked about the impacts of using natural gas and methane, Richins said Idaho Power supports more regulations on methane leaks, but it would largely not be his company’s responsibility.
“If those rules go into effect, certainly there’s going to be a lot of monitoring on methane,” he said. “The majority of that doesn’t involve us. We’re not a gas company, so those methane regulations will have strict monitoring in those areas to ensure leakage is not occurring and there is way less release of methane and from our perspective that makes sense at this time.”
Ongoing questions from environmental groups
Advocacy organizations mobilizing around climate change cheered both Idaho Power and the City of Boise’s clean energy goals when they were announced in 2019.
But, that doesn’t mean they don’t have some ongoing questions about Idaho Power’s plans. Lisa Young, Director of the Idaho Chapter of the Sierra Club, said despite her organization’s backing of Idaho Power’s moves so far, she noted the company’s twenty-year plan for energy generation from 2018 “wasn’t anywhere close” to meeting the 2045 goal. However, she said the company’s newest plan released earlier this year, looks “much more promising.”
Then there’s the question of what counts as a clean energy source. In its plan, Idaho Power will only count the conversation to 100% renewable energy sources it owns. This means as the company builds out its network of transmission lines so it can trade power with other regions depending on the need, it could be using carbon-dependent sources while still technically meeting its goal.
“Idaho Power has said this commitment doesn’t include market sources, it just includes energy from its own power plants and Idaho Power plans to continue relying on the market,” Young said. “That means Idaho Power could continue delivering electricity from dirty electricity sources they are not taking accountability for.”
Groups like the Sierra Club and other conservation groups have also been at odds with Idaho Power over its policies on solar power generated by private users. Called net metering, this process allows people who generate more electricity than they use with their solar panels to sell it to others for money.
Idaho Power has come out against a policy allowing solar panels installed after 2019 to sell electricity back to the grid at the same price they pay to consume it, arguing they are not paying their fair share, according to KBSX. The Sierra Club said this shows the company only backs renewable energy from sources it owns, not those installed by private citizens.
H2O makes the world go ‘round
Water is never something you should take for granted in the Mountain West, especially as climate change impacts continue to make the region hotter and drier.
A new study found in the next 35 to 60 years large swaths of the Rocky Mountain region will be snow-free for years at a time if climate change does not slow. This is problematic for a range of reasons, including the lack of available snowpack to power water supplies for drinking and irrigation. And, in record-breaking summers like 2021, hotter summers mean less water would make it to the reservoirs because more snow would evaporate on the slopes instead of running off the mountains.
This limits how much water would be available to use for electricity generation. Idaho Power has staff members dedicated to studying water forecasts and preparing for potential fluctuations in water levels. In bad water years, Richins said Idaho Power has to turn to other sources of power, which are often more expensive to purchase and can jack rates.
“One of the downsides to these droughts is hydroelectricity is extremely cheap compared to other sources,” he said. “One of the negatives is if we have to generate it with another one of our sources or we have to go to the market you’ll see price impacts. We have a really diverse portfolio with different generation resources with wind, solar and natural gas so if there are snowpack issues we monitor it and if they continue to get worse we will build more solar and wind type storage to replace that energy.”
Disclosure: Idaho Power is a BoiseDev advertiser. It had no role in the selection or production of this story.