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Forget Paris: Accord or No, Idaho Public & Private Entities Adapting to Climate Change

"Look, even economically, coal doesn't make sense."

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President Donald Trump's exit from the Paris climate accord generated its own global warming, touching off a worldwide political firestorm.

"Our children and grandchildren will look back on this decision, stunned that one leader could be divorced from reality and morality," said Zack Waterman, director of the Idaho chapter of the Sierra Club.

A letter to Trump, signed by U.S. mayors representing more than 42 million constituents in 75 cities, urged the president to change course. One of the signees was Boise Mayor Dave Bieter.

"Knowing how important this is to Boiseans, it was a pretty easy decision to make" said Bieter. "Ever since [Trump's] election, we've prepared to push as hard as we can on certain issues."

The mayor isn't a Dave-come-lately to the issue. He was among the first in the nation—and the first Idaho mayor—to sign onto the Mayor's Agreement on Climate Change in 2006.

"Looking back, we were flying blind. We had no idea how well that would be received, but Boiseans embrace that cause," Bieter said. "All these years later, I can tell you this is a daily push."

Bieter pointed to renewed efforts to expand the city's geothermal system; its conversion of hundreds of streetlights to energy efficient LEDs; construction of new LEED certified buildings; introducing electric vehicles to the city fleet and the initiation of a curbside composting program.

Perhaps Idaho's biggest climate policy evolution can be found on Page 19 of Idaho Power's 2016 Sustainability Report, outlining goals for Idaho's largest utility: "Explore the development of a climate change adaptation plan focusing on the potential impacts to company operations from climate change-related events, including more frequent wildfires, reduced snowpack and lower streamflow and riverflow."

That's music to Ben Otto's ears. The chief energy associate for the Idaho Conservation League spends his days negotiating, discussing and sometimes disagreeing with utilities. In the wake of Trump's 2016 presidential victory—following a campaign where he regularly said there was no need to address climate change—Otto said he had reason to worry.

"I was sitting in my Boise office and was bummed out, trying to think what might happen next. I knew I had a meeting coming up with Idaho Power where we were going to talk about their plans for the future, and I was kind of expecting a change in the wind," he said. "Then my phone rang. It was John Bernardo, the sustainability strategist for Idaho Power. He said, 'Ben, I just want to tell you, I know all this stuff has happened. It's not changing the company's direction. We're going to continue to follow the facts and that's how we make plans for Idaho."

Bernardo confirmed that's what he told Otto.

"You bet. I well remember that phone conversation," Bernardo said.

For the past eight years, Bernardo has helped Idaho Power identify efficiencies and significant cultural change that also make financial sense.

"For instance, we're promoting electric vehicles," said Bernardo, acknowledging an increase in electric cars means more consumer demand for Idaho Power's product.

"Yes, that's financial opportunity for us, but it's a direct benefit to society," he said. "If you compare, you travel about the same distance for about $2.20 a gallon for gas versus 85 cents for electric."

Otto agreed electric vehicles "are a huge marketing opportunity for Idaho Power."

"But we're completely fine with that, because Idaho's No. 1 air quality threat, by far, comes from vehicle emissions," he added. "Electric cars are great but rare in Idaho because the range for electric car batteries isn't where it needs to be yet."

That's about to change, Bernardo said.

"Have you heard about the Chevy Bolt? Not the Volt, but the Bolt. The Volt is a hybrid of electric and gas, but the Bolt is all electric," he said. "The Bolt's battery charge has a 230-mile range. That's a game changer. "

The biggest game changer at Idaho Power is its new take on coal, which for decades fueled much of the power generated in the U.S. A generation ago, it would have been inconceivable for an Idaho Power executive to concede coal was bad, but Bernardo talked about Idaho Power being on the "gliding path away from coal."

"Look, even economically, coal doesn't make sense," he said. "It may not have been like this years ago, but there are two big reasons why we're exiting coal. No. 1: the environmental impact. No. 2: There currently isn't a carbon tax or a cap and trade on coal. But we're anticipating that's going to happen someday."

Bernardo pointed to a graph showing an ever-shrinking Idaho Power coal-fired power generation, amounting to a 44 percent reduction since 2005.

"In 2005, we had near 6 million megawatt hours of power fueled by coal. We're down to nearly 3 million and we're discontinuing our purchase of power from coal-powered plants going forward," he said.

At Boise City Hall, where he occasionally picks up an electric vehicle from the city's fleet of vehicles, Bieter said adaptation to the threat of climate change will roll on no matter who's in the White House.

"It's a daily push from our council, staff and city employees," he said. "And that's consistent with where our citizens tell us they want us to be."

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