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UPDATE: Dialing Down the Thermostat, Dialing Up the Solar Debate

Update: PUC Commissioner Mack Redford passed away June 30, 2015.

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UPDATE: July 1, 2015

State officials announced July 1 that Idaho Public Utilities Commissioner Mack Redford had died in the evening hours of June 30. Redford's passing comes as the PUC commissioners face a much-anticipated vote on Idaho Power's desire to restrict 20-year PURPA contracts from renewable energy providers down to two years, as covered in the current edition of Boise Weekly.

Redford had been absent at the recent public hearing and this week's technical hearings regarding the Idaho Power proposal, which have attracted precedent-setting interest. Fellow PUC Commissioner Paul Kjellander had informed the public during the hearings that Redford would not be present and would be reading the transcripts from the proceedings.

Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, who appointed Redford to the commission in 2007, said, "Mack was the true embodiment of what it means to be a public servant."

Redford, a Caldwell High School graduate, earned his law degree from the University of Idaho and later served as a deputy in the Idaho attorney general's office. He spent several years working abroad as legal counsel for large construction firms, including Morrison Knudsen and the Channel Tunnel Contractors, which built the so-called "Chunnel" between England and France. Redford was legal counsel for Micron Construction and later practiced law with Boise-based Elam & Burke. He was a husband and the father of two children.

Following news of Redford's passing, PUC Public Information Officer Gene Fadness told Boise Weekly that the PURPA decision-making process would move forward as scheduled. 

"Idaho Code 61-211 allows two commissioners to proceed as a majority," said Fadness. "They will continue until they come to a conclusion," adding that it was "an unlikely scenario" for the commissioners to be deadlocked on the issue.

Kjellander told parties in the Idaho Power PURPA case that a decision could come as early as the end of July.

Meanwhile, Otter is expected to announce a new commissioner in the next several weeks.

"And that new commissioner would not be involved in the Idaho Power case anyway," said Fadness.

ORIGINAL STORY:

Not one. Not a single person stood before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission June 24 to say Idaho Power should be allowed to dramatically limit its contracts with solar energy providers. One-by-one, members of the public—students, retirees, officials from the public and private sectors, conservation advocates, engineers and self-proclaimed energy experts—told the commission, which regulates all of the Gem State's utilities, in no uncertain terms that the PUC should quash Idaho Power's proposal to reduce the duration of future renewable energy sales agreements from 20 years to 24 months.

Decades from now, Gem State historians may look back on that unseasonably hot June evening, when a mix of Idahoans expressed solidarity in favor of solar power and opposition to the effort to dial down renewable energy contracts.

"I should caution you that commissioners are not here to offer comments," said PUC Commissioner Paul Kjellander, setting the ground rules for what would be a two hour-plus hearing. "The commissioners serve as judge in this matter."

The proceedings did indeed run similar to a courtroom, with citizen "witnesses" being sworn in by a deputy attorney general and sitting in a witness box before the PUC "judges." The commission kept its Boise hearing room at a comfortable 75 degrees as triple-digit heat baked the city outside the PUC's Washington Street office. Though the meeting remained civil throughout, there was no doubt it is a heated issue.

"Before a championship boxing match, someone asked Mike Tyson if he had a plan. Tyson said, 'Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth,'" said the evening's first witness, retired energy developer Michael Heckler. "This two-year limitation of contracts is a punch in the mouth. I urge the PUC to shake this off. It limits competition and free-market regulation of prices."

Public testimony continued into the evening: some of it articulate, some of it rambling, some of it featuring homemade charts and graphs. Nearly all of the speakers identified themselves as Idaho Power customers:

"[Idaho Power] chooses to be on the wrong side of environmental health and the wrong side of history," said self-described alternative energy promoter Reed Burkholder.

"Our state is blessed with clean, renewable resources and we should embrace them," said Rebecca Bundy, Senior Planner at the City of Ketchum's Department of Planning and Building.

"The Public Utilities Commission and Idaho Power have an ethical responsibility to open all pathways to environmental renewables," said Ketchum artist Karen McCall, who handed commissioners a petition with 1,000 signatures opposing Idaho Power's proposal to restrict new renewable energy contracts.

"Idaho Power simply need to work a little harder on this," said Pocatello-based engineer Brian Formusa. "They don't need any extra PUC protections from renewable energy projects."

Representatives of Idaho Power sat mum throughout the night as every speaker voiced opposition to the plan, which we reported on in the spring (BW, News, "Here Comes the Sun, " March 18, 2015). It was then that Idaho Power attorney Donovan Walker pointed to what he called his "hockey stick chart," featuring a long, steady line stretching for decades before rising rapidly as it reaches 2014 and 2015.

The chart demonstrates the amount of renewable energy coming through Idaho Power's grid and the sharply rising line indicates when Idaho Power began signing contracts through the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, or PURPA, requiring utilities to purchase solar, wind and/or hydroelectric power from developers.

"We already have, under contract, 400 MWs that will be coming in from new solar projects next year," Donovan told Boise Weekly. "Then on top of that, there's another 900 MWS from proposed contracts. To put that in perspective, that's larger than our entire Hells Canyon three-dam complex. It exceeds the total load on our system."

Based on those numbers, Idaho Power balked at the mandated 20-year length of the contracts with renewable energy providers and asked the PUC to lower the contract length to two years.

"It's asking someone to buy a house but with only a two-year mortgage," said Ben Otto, energy associate with the Idaho Conservation League. "This would squash future renewable energy development."

Otto sat quietly during the June 24 public testimony. Otto, Donovan and many other parties—both pro and con—knew they would have their own day in PUC "court," and on the morning of June 29 Donovan walked back into the same PUC hearing room carrying a box full of binders. He slapped each one down on his desk in front of PUC commissioners as he prepared for what would be multiple days of so-called "technical hearings," in which intervenors would include other utility companies, the Idaho Conservation League, the Sierra Club, Snake River Alliance, Intermountain Energy Partners, Micron, JR Simplot Co. and about a dozen other companies or nonprofits.

"Have you come to watch the fireworks?" asked Clint Kalich, manager of resource planning for Avista Power, a party to the hearing.

A layperson could have been easily lost in the lengthy technical hearing as the room full of attorneys and spokespeople parsed through the Idaho Power application, but the real fireworks may come later in the month, when the PUC is expected to issue a significant ruling in the matter.

"You should know that the PUC could rule on this issue as early as the end of July," Kjellander cautioned the June 24 hearing. "So the affected parties should be on notice."

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