The battle over renewable energy in Idaho has taken place in a vacuum, with little discussion of its place in the global marketplace.
At the heart of the debate is whether the federal subsidies and loan guarantees that drove dramatic growth in wind energy development over the past five years was good for the public or costly. Idaho Power argued that it has been forced to buy an intermittent power source it does not need and is not reliable as a source when it does need power in the summer.
They say the current avoided-cost rate is too high — so customers, who pay the full cost, are paying too much. They prefer to use existing coal plants already on the rate base.
Wind power developers say ratepayers are getting a deal because once the plants are in place, the fuel is free and the costs locked in for 20 years. The costs, now about the same as the natural gas plant costs for Idaho Power’s new plant near New Plymouth, will look cheap in future years as natural gas prices rise, they say.
The Idaho Public Utilities Commission will decide this spring and summer, and that will clear up some of these issues. Meanwhile, in a world where carbon dioxide levels are at 393 parts per million — the highest levels in 140,000 years — scientists, economists and even the Pentagon worry we are heading toward a crisis we may not be able to reverse.
Once CO2 levels reach 450 parts per million, temperatures are expected to rise 3.5 degrees above the levels that existed prior to industrialization. If these otherwise careful and conservative scientists are correct, this will lead to centuries of higher sea levels, extreme weather, famine, mass migration and a world that can support fewer people and the other creatures we share it with.
This potential outcome is the reason behind the drive to transition our global economy from fossil fuels. But many Americans can’t bring themselves to believe this. So even politicians who do won’t push what is characterized as alarmist ideas.
Despite this, the Obama administration and Congress put in place subsidies and loan-guarantee programs for both renewable energy and nuclear, a source that depends on efforts to reduce rapid climate change to thrive.
Globally, investment in renewable energy grew to a record $263 billion in 2011, a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year, according to new research on clean energy financing released by The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The United States attracted $48 billion in clean energy investment, a 42 percent increase over 2010. This helped propel the addition of 6.7 gigawatts of wind and, for the first time, more than 1 gigawatts of solar energy, enough to power 800,000 homes.
Total U.S. installed renewable energy capacity at the end of 2011 was 93 gigawatts, second to China. But the expiration of Treasury grants and Department of Energy's loan guarantee programs, along with the end of the production tax credit at the end of this year, will likely reduce U.S. investment in renewables.
Idaho’s changing policies also will cut investments here.
Gov. Butch Otter is in China, which was the biggest investor in renewable energy even as it was building new coal plants at a dangerous pace. China attracted $45.5 billion in clean energy investment, which spurred deployment of 20 gigawatts of wind power, the most of any nation.
Its leaders know they have to go through the carbon economy transition. But they are racing to develop to keep 700 million people who live as peasants from fueling a new revolution they won’t be able to control.
Two years ago, Otter was justifiably promoting Idaho as a center of renewable energy development. He will have a harder time doing that in the face of changing state policies.
But despite a relatively good record of promoting energy efficiency and renewables in the name of combating climate change, I’d be surprised to see him take a more out-front role. His Republican base is already mad at him over his efforts to attract investment from China.
Imagine how they would feel if he started sounding like Al Gore.