Idaho solar developer fights to keep project alive

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The developer of a proposed $180 million southern Idaho solar energy project hopes to be delivering electricity within months, despite past rejections by regulators.

Peter Richardson, a Boise energy lawyer and one of the project's developers, said a decision from the Idaho Public Utilities Commission expected within weeks may resolve a fight with Idaho Power Co. over whether it must buy electricity from three 20-megawatt solar farms planned near Grandview, 40 miles from Boise.

"We'll be on by the spring of 2014, if we get a favorable order from the commission," Richardson said. "It will not take long."

Construction of large renewable energy projects has all but stalled in Idaho. Numerous wind and solar projects, including a similar Grandview project, have been scuttled over the last three years amid the loss of tax credits and changes in regulatory rules that made such developments unattractive to financiers.

Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman, said Thursday it's premature to predict just what the regulators will decide on Richardson's project, which would be Idaho's first utility-scale solar installation.

Idaho Power has scant solar resources. The utility has 287 tiny photovoltaic systems — largely mounted on people's homes — supplying about 2 megawatts of power.

Among other things, Idaho Power contends projects such as Richardson's, which rely on federal laws requiring regulated utilities to buy their electricity, drive up costs for its more than 500,000 customers.

"We just want the price that we pay for energy from these projects to be fair for our customers," Bowlin said, of the upcoming regulators' decision. "If we end up with a contract that's approved by the Public Utilities Commission, then certainly we'll purchase the power as required."

The state's biggest utility has been fighting with Richardson over his project since 2011.

Among other things, Idaho Power maintains it's entitled to a share of renewable energy credits that accompany such projects and can be worth millions of dollars.

Meanwhile, Richardson contends the credits belong to him — and that giving them to Idaho Power without compensation is tantamount to theft.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission originally sided with Idaho Power on Oct. 29 and rejected Richardson's demands, but the three-person panel that regulates electricity in the state agreed to reconsider its decision last month. In his appeal, Richardson argues he has a legally enforceable agreement with Idaho Power for it to buy his electricity while letting him keep the credits — something he says is necessary to make his project financially viable.

Public Utilities Commission spokesman Gene Fadness said Thursday agreeing to take up arguments again is by no means a sign regulators will reverse course.

"The commission's first concern is electricity that's delivered reliably at reasonable rates," Fadness said.

All this comes as Idaho Power is under pressure from environmental groups to wean itself from coal-fired power plants that supply 42 percent of its electricity generation.

In early December, the company won regulatory approval to add $130 million worth of pollution-control equipment to its Wyoming coal plant — over objections from environmentalists who say the company should invest in renewables and conservation efforts rather than prop up aging facilities that add to greenhouse gases.

Ken Miller, a renewable energy advocate at the Snake River Alliance in Boise, said a ruling for Richardson's solar development would be an incremental step in helping to prove Idaho Power has viable alternatives to coal.

"Once you get a big project on the system like Grandview, and you can prove that it works, then it should open the way for additional projects," Miller said.