AMERICAN FALLS, Idaho — Renewable energy developers say Idaho is poised to experience a short-lived solar energy boom, with the state’s first commercial solar power projects approved for construction in 2016.
Developers say solar technology has finally come of age in Idaho — resulting in a shift away from wind turbines in their renewable-energy project applications — thanks to a roughly two-thirds decline in the price of the technology during the past five years and a change in state policy reflecting the greater value of power produced when a utility needs it most. Unlike wind power, solar production tends to peak on hot summer days, when power plants are also strapped to meet demands of irrigators.
Farmers and ranchers who own land where the solar panels are planned will benefit from steady, new income from renewable-energy companies.
In Power County, growers Jerome Clinger and Conrad Isaak will lease 400 acres of prime farm ground to SunEdison, one of the world’s largest renewable-energy developers, for construction of a 40-megawatt solar farm. Work should begin next spring, and the facility will tie into an existing 130-kilovolt line that passes through the property.
“I’ve always had power poles cross my place, but this is the first time I’ve ever been pretty excited about them,” Clinger said.
On the other hand, well irrigators represented by Idaho Ground Water Appropriators, Inc., note investor-owned utilities are forced under the federal Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act to buy qualifying renewable energy, even when it’s unneeded and more costly to produce. PURPA assigns states to set contract procedures and pricing methodologies.
“Those folks who have (solar panels) in their spud fields will reap a benefit from that, but it’s all the rate payers who will pick up the additional cost,” said IGWA Executive Director Lynn Tominaga.
Though ground hasn’t broken on the state’s first solar farms, new applications for PURPA contracts with Idaho Power have mostly shifted to the company’s Oregon territory, due to an Idaho policy change.
Idaho’s nine solar contracts approved with Idaho Power for 2016 construction, representing 260 megawatts of energy, were ratified prior to Aug. 20, 2015. On that date, the state shortened the maximum duration Idaho utilities are required to contract for PURPA solar and wind projects above 100 kilowatts from 20 years to two years.
SunEdison plans to add 100 megawatts of solar energy to Idaho Power’s grid in 2016, all under 20-year contracts, with additional projects approved for Elmore, Ada and Owyhee counties.
“We’d like to invest further in Idaho, but we’re not going to be able to build a project on a two-year contract,” said Ben Fairbanks, SunEdison’s development manager for the Northwest.
All 15 PURPA solar projects approved with Idaho Power since Aug. 20, totaling 129 megawatts, will be built in Oregon, where the PURPA contract length remains 20 years, though Idaho Power officials say companies are still expressing interest in further Idaho development.
Another 50 megawatts of new wind power, planned for sale to Idaho Power, has been approved for construction in Oregon.
A case is pending, however, to align Oregon’s PURPA contract length and procedures with Idaho’s.
Michael Darrington, senior energy coordinator with Idaho Power, said Idaho Power’s 2015 resource plan estimates the company won’t need additional power resources until July of 2024, and adding resources prior to then presents unnecessary costs for customers.
Fairbanks said federal tax credits for renewable energy were recently extended for five years, so renewable projects should still be viable in states with favorable laws.