Thursday, August 18, 2011

Idaho’s Biggest Electrical Utility Looks to Expand Solar Portfolio

The utility that built its business on hydroelectric power in the 1950s and ’60s and expanded with coal plants in the 1970s and ’80s will complete a natural gas plant next year.

But Idaho Power has no experience building or operating the renewable technology that is expanding worldwide.

So it plans to build a pilot photovoltaic solar plant that will give it the expertise it needs for the technology that already has risen over the horizon. Idaho Power also has approved two contracts to buy power from solar developers.

The focus comes as the company’s interest in renewable wind power has waned. One difference? Predictability.

Idaho Power’s interest in solar comes from the shape of the sun’s power curve. It rises just as people wake up and start using appliances.

Solar power peaks in the summer when customers are using air conditioners and farmers are running pumps to irrigate their crops. This is when electricity is most expensive on the open market.

Wind power comes and goes — making it harder to integrate into the overall picture, the company has said.

“The shape of solar’s load has a lot more value to us,” said Mark Stokes, Idaho Power’s power supply planning manager.

After being urged by many Idaho and Northwest groups, Idaho Power included solar options in the integrated resource management plan it presented to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission recently.

“I think if they built a plant and it’s on their system, they will be more comfortable about solar,” said Ken Miller, an energy analyst with the Snake River Alliance and a member of Idaho Power’s planning committee. “It will become less mysterious.”

The utility recently signed a contract to buy power from Interconnect Solar, a Boise-based company that is planning to build a solar power plant near Murphy. It already had approved a contract for a plant near Grand View.

Both have been scheduled to come on line in 2012, but the PUC said last week it needs until late September to review the proposed price structure — a delay Interconnect contends could derail the whole project.

The contract was a good deal for both the developer and Idaho Power, said Bill Piske, Interconnect’s solar manager.

“Idaho Power did a really good job of looking out for their customers,” Piske said.

Idaho Power plans to ask for bids later this year, and it still hasn’t decided whether it wants a project on open ground or on rooftops. That’s part of the learning curve, Stokes said.

Options include putting the solar panels in an area near a substation. The rooftop option includes several variants, but the company is not looking at putting them on residential customers’ roofs.

But companies with large flat buildings might fit the bill.

“One option would be for Idaho Power to pay someone to use their roof, and Idaho Power would own the system,” Stokes said.

They are seeking to build the one-half- to 1-megawatt plant in the Valley, near some of its highest customer load.

Idaho Power estimates it can build the plant for $3,750 per kilowatt, which would make it cost about $2 million to $4 million. The utility estimates it will require between 5 and 10 acres of land.

Part of the trick to solar is setting up the system to optimize its output for its altitude and location. Idaho Power will not only learn how to integrate solar onto its grid but also learn what solar technologies work best in Idaho.

“There is a kind of research and development component to this,” Stokes said. “It’s not just as simple as throwing some solar panels out there and you are done.”


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