The Idaho Sierra Club’s Fight for Idaho’s Energy Future


Should Idahoans continue to invest in coal?

By Benton Smith

Driving through Idaho often gives the impression that we are living in a “green state”. Windmills and damns have become such common sights that the once boyhood thrill of seeing those red lights is much more lackluster. According to the US Energy Information Administration 92 percent of power generated in Idaho in 2011 came from renewable energy resources. Most of that is hydroelectric, which accounted for 80 percent of energy produced in Idaho. Great statistics and well ahead of much of the nation, but these numbers look a little less impressive when compared with the fact that nearly 50 percent of the energy consumed in Idaho comes from out of state coal-fire plants.

These are statistics from the Beyond Coal Campaign, Idaho Sierra Club’s attempt to educate Boiseans about the cost of one of these out of state coal plants, the Jim Bridger plant.

Jim Bridger recently found itself in the news last December when Idaho Power was granted permission to make a $130 million dollar upgrade to it by the Public Utilities Commission (PUC). The decision, however, denied Idaho Power’s request to pass the cost of the upgrade onto its ratepayers, at least for now.

One reason for this request to be denied is that Idaho Power is taking a gamble by continuing to invest in coal when critics, the Idaho Sierra Club included, would prefer to see that money invested within Idaho boarders on cleaner energy. They argue this would bolster the economy and push Idaho away from being dependent on outdated energy sources.

“The issue with the Jim Bridger plant more specifically is that these power plants are kind of like cars in that over time they have this depreciating value; at some point in time they’re going to be useless and Jim Bridger is reaching the end of its life.” Says James Blakely, Idaho Sierra Club’s Conservation Program Coordinator.

“Here in Idaho we haven’t fully taken advantage of alternatives…”

The $130 million that Idaho Power has asked for is to buy a haze filter, which is required because of the Clean Air Act, which mandates a certain air quality across all state parks. However, the Clean Air Act fails to account for other concerns such as mercury dumping or standard maintenance. This means that if the PUC allowed the transfer of the bill to Idaho Power customers, they would have no guarantee against future charges if the plant broke down or had to be further upgraded in the face of stricter environmental legislation that is likely in the coming years.

“Idaho Power claims coal is cheap, but they don’t take into account the human health and environment damage,” says Zack Waterman, Chapter director of the Idaho Sierra Club. “Here in Idaho we haven’t fully taken advantage of alternatives because Idaho Power hasn’t needed to in the sense that they already own these old coal plants and are making lots of money. Why change things now?”

Instead of throwing useful money after dirty energy, Idaho Power needs to invest that $130 million into Idaho itself. Namely, proponents argue investments into solar energy and other renewable sources are needed if Idaho Power is going to be able to evolve with changing times. This would bring job opportunities back within Idaho borders while also giving customers stuck footing the bill a cleaner energy option for their buck.