Idaho

Bringing the Economy Home

After The Wind Boom, A Fight Over Idaho’s Energy Future

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

The wind farm on Edith and Richard Kopp's land was completed last year.

If you look at a map of where wind development has taken off in Idaho, you’ll notice an area near American Falls. There, in the rolling agricultural land of southeast Idaho, Edith Kopp stands on a high hillside.  She gazes out with satisfaction at more than a dozen turbines, turning steadily.

“This is a pretty constant wind,” she says.  “They’re all going!”

Kopp and her husband, Richard, have spent their lives right here, farming grain.  For decades, they’ve planted in spring and harvested in summer.  They’ve tallied profits and losses as winter sets in.  The years have been marked by anxiety, and hope.

“Hopefully at the end of the year when you sell your crop, there will be something left for you,” Kopp explains.  “In 33 years of marriage there’s been several of those years when there wasn’t anything left for us.”

She pauses, and then says, “This is the first time we’ve ever had a steady income.”

That income is thanks to wind turbines like the one that towers above us. A wind developer owns it, but the Kopps own this land.  To them, the turbines mean royalty payments for the rest of their lives.

Molly Messick / StateImpact Idaho

This billboard and others near American Falls are one measure of how sentiment has turned against wind development.

Wind development has taken off in Idaho.  In four years, 30 wind projects were approved in the state.  Before then, Idaho had just one wind farm.  Now, legislators and the state’s utilities are pumping the brakes.

The Kopp’s story is the kind wind developers love to tout: here in Idaho, clean and renewable wind energy is sustaining rural communities.  But you don’t have to go far to get a very different take on wind development.

On the roadside, on the way out of American Falls, there’s a billboard that reads, “swindle.”  The letters w-i-n-d, spelling “wind,” are in red.  Then the sign reads, “Not cheap.  Not clean.  Not for Idaho.”

It’s one of several nearby.  They’re sponsored by a local anti-wind group called the Energy Integrity Project, and they aren’t the only opposition the industry has faced here.  There have been objections about spoiled landscapes and preferential tax policy.  A proposed moratorium on wind development has won support from prominent legislators.  Then there’s Idaho Power’s campaign. Through TV ads and leaflets, the state’s largest utility has worked to spread a simple message: wind power drives up electricity prices.

So what’s going on here?  Why did Idaho welcome wind and then turn a cold shoulder?  The answer is the story behind the story of Edith and Richard Kopp’s wind turbines.  And it has to do with a federal law you’ve probably never heard of: the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act of 1978, also known as PURPA.

“Congress, when it passed PURPA, their goal was essentially national security,” explains Peter Richardson, who practices energy and utility law in Boise.

Here’s the context: it’s the late 70s, and there’s an energy crisis.  Government wants to encourage independent power production, but there’s a problem.  The utilities control electricity generation.  They’re monopolies.  They don’t want to distribute power they don’t produce.  So, here’s what PURPA does: it makes utilities accept power from small, independent projects.  They don’t have a choice.

Now, fast-forward 30 years.  There’s anxiety about climate change and job creation.  Congress passes a tax credit for renewable energy production.  Idaho passes a property tax exemption for wind producers.  At the same time, wind turbines become a lot cheaper.  Plus, PURPA is still there, telling utilities they have to accept power from small, independent producers.  Wind developers rush into Idaho, catching the state off-guard.  And that brings us to today.

“The utilities are using this accident,” Richardson says, “this perfect storm, that allowed for a very large amount of wind to be developed to put the kibosh on all PURPA projects.”

Richardson represents many wind developers, and this is his view: that the utilities are trying to dismantle the mechanism that forces them to accept energy from small, independent projects.  He says the utilities want to protect their market power, and their profits.  No surprise, the utilities don’t see it that way.  Mark Stokes is the manager of power supply planning for Idaho Power.

“I would not characterize it as us trying to dismantle PURPA,” says Mark Stokes, the manager of power supply planning for Idaho Power.  “We are just trying to get the rates that we pay for this energy through these contracts to be a fair rate, so that our customers aren’t harmed.”

Idaho Power has a couple of arguments.  First, wind doesn’t always blow, and turbines don’t always turn.  For utilities, that varying supply can be hard to accommodate.  Sometimes, Stokes says, Idaho Power winds up with way more energy than it needs.

“We end up having to turn around and sell that energy back into the market, because it’s surplus,” Stokes says.  “We end up taking a big loss on that, which ultimately ends up impacting the rates of our customers.”

Stokes and Richardson don’t agree about much, but they both say one key thing.  There’s a rate – set by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission – that dictates how much utilities pay for the independent power they have to accept.  Stokes and Richardson say that rate may, for a time, have been set too high.  In other words, when wind developers looked around to see where they should build projects, they saw a special deal in Idaho.

The utilities want a lot of changes to the way PURPA works in the state.  Those include shorter contracts with independent energy producers, and a different way to calculate rates.

Richardson says the utilities’ proposals would shut wind developers out of the state.  “Instead of turning the spigot on and off to allow new development when it’s needed, they’re basically blowing up the well!” he says.

These arguments are currently before the Public Utilities Commission, which is expected to rule next month.  The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has already weighed in on one aspect of the case, coming down in favor of the wind industry.

What can we take away from all of this?  Let’s hear from one more person: Ben Otto, of the Idaho Conservation League.  He’s a fan of clean energy, but he says Idaho hasn’t approached it in the right way.

“Business is just reacting naturally to what is placed before them,” he says.  He imitates an old-fashioned ad man. “’Here’s a very lucrative thing, and it’s a limited-time offer!  Get it now, before we’re out!’”  And that’s because Idaho doesn’t have much of an energy plan, Otto says.

The state does have a document called the Idaho Energy Plan, but Otto and other experts say it has little weight.  Otto believes that leaves the state in a binge-and-purge cycle.  “When the incentives are hot, everybody comes in,” he explains.  “When the incentives go down, everybody leaves.”

A federal tax credit for wind power is set to expire in December, making this particular cycle even more dramatic.

Now let’s think back to the start of the story and to Edith Kopp, standing under a turbine on a hillside near American Falls.  Why did Idaho welcome wind farms, and then change its tune?  The answer is complicated.  It’s about state and federal policy, and businesses looking for profit.  And it’s a case study in unintended consequences.

Comments

  • OldIdahoGuy

    Nice story… but as I read it I was struck by the lack of balance in the story… The first is the Kopps. Sound like good people trying to make a living and succeeding. That’s an American success story and I like it. Then the author quotes an attorney who represents wind companies. No problem there… we all need to have a lawyer on our side at some time. Then a quote from the Idaho Conservation League. Good people…
    But where are the balancing quotes? Where’s the direct quote from an Idaho Power representative? Where’s the direct quote from someone with the Energy Integrity Project? Where’s the direct quote from someone who doesn’t like the noise, or impacts on wildlife?
    I’m not against wind power. It has a great role to play. We should be capturing the energy that is out there… it just makes sense, especially if its low cost, reliable and clean. (Unfortunately, wind is expensive so far – but costs are coming down. And it’s not reliable, because the wind blows at the wrong time of day, usually at night… but it is definately clean, and that’s great.)
    But people living near the turbines in other areas of the U.S. have been forced to move out because of the constant hum of the blades. And in California, a 2008 study funded by the Alameda County Community Development Agency estimated that about 2,400 raptors, including burrowing owls, American kestrels, and red-tailed hawks—as well as about 7,500 other birds, nearly all of which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Other reports indicate that 70 golden eagles are killed each year in California by the rotating blades….
    Are those problems Idaho is facing?

    • mmessick

      Thanks for your comments. It seems you missed Mark Stokes’ presence in the piece. He is Idaho Power’s manager of power supply planning, and we met for an extensive interview. The story is also informed by interviews with many others who do not appear by name. I’ve written to the Energy Integrity Project asking about their stake in this issue, but have received no response.

      As for the other questions you raise — they’re certainly valid. They simply weren’t the focus of this particular story.

  • Jeffrey J. Luxmore

    Molly,

    I was driving through Southern Idaho on my way back to Washington when I kept seeing anti-wind power billboards. I suspected traditional power companies were behind the positive-sounding organization, Energy Education Project, but had a difficult time finding good information online.

    This article (and a couple related ones) really helped me understand the issues at hand. Thanks! It is definitely a good example of unintended consequences. I’ll be curious to see how issues regarding wind power will continue to unfold across the country!

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