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Science

Is the Meter Running Out for Solar Power in Idaho?

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In Idaho, farmers have been taking advantage of solar power. Solar power, or power obtained from sun, is a renewable energy resource and offers an alternative to fossil fuels, which when burned produce greenhouse gases and other pollutants that are harmful to both people and the environment. However, Idaho Power is proposing to change its solar net-metering program, which could jeopardize the financial viability of new solar projects. This week on Sustainable Idaho, hosts Rachel and Scott explore the changes to Idaho Power’s net metering program and what it could mean for everyday Idahoans.

This week on Sustainable Idaho, we explore the clean and inexhaustible renewable energy resource that is solar energy. 

Solar energy, or power from sun, is harnessed using a range of ever-evolving technologies such as solar heating and photovoltaics. Photovoltaics, are the cells used in solar panels, that transform solar energy into direct current energy and then into usable alternating current energy with the help of an inverter. Being a renewable resource, solar energy offers an alternative to fossil fuels, which when burned produce greenhouse gases and other pollutants that are harmful to both people and the environment. This is part of what makes solar a sustainable alternative. 

The potential of solar energy is quite remarkable, it’s estimated by scientists that 18 days of solar energy reaching Earth, is equal to the energy stored in all of the planet's reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas. 

We get about 200 days of sun a year, and one group in particular who has been benefiting is Idaho Farmers. 

Power costs are among the most expensive considerations for Idaho farmers because farming here requires power hungry irrigation pumps. To help control costs and be more self-reliant, farmers across Idaho are choosing to install solar panels through a partnership with Idaho Power known as “net metering”. 

Net metering is a system, through which Idaho Power gives credit for any excess energy a customer produces. This credit can be used at a later time to exchange for energy. For example, a customer may amass credits in the summer and use them later in the winter when they are generating less. 

However, the current net metering program could be in jeopardy! 

To investigate what’s been happening around solar in Idaho, we hear from the Sierra Club, which is a conservation group, an Idaho Farmer, the citizens climate lobby, which is a grassroots advocacy group, and Idaho Power.

We started by asking Lisa Young, the director of the Idaho Chapter of the Sierra Club, about what’s been happening. 

“Idaho Power is proposing changes to its solar net metering program for heavy use customers like irrigators and farmers. That could make it harder for farmers and ranchers to go solar in the future and impact the financial investment of those that already have solar systems. We know that there is so much promise for Idaho’s agricultural communities to use solar as an option to control their growing power costs, gain energy independence, build resilience and benefit from Idaho’s promise to transition to a renewable future. We see Idaho Powers proposal as something that could limit of all this potential. For us, this is about fairness for farmers who want and deserve a choice in how they meet and control their energy costs”.

In Idaho, Idaho Power represents a monopoly, which distributes energy to our communities. This means, they are the only choice we have when we buy power. But, although they are monopoly, this doesn’t mean they are unregulated. Idaho Power operates within the constraints of regulations set by the Public Utilities Commission. If Idaho Power wants to make changes to its energy policies, they must first seek the approval of the commission. 

And this is exactly what’s happening. Idaho Power is proposing changes to how solar works in Idaho.  

“The proposed changes that we are taking about are to do with the net metering program. This is the program that any customer can use. These net metering programs are partnerships between the customer and Idaho Power. One of the reasons Idaho Power is proposing changes, they say in their submission to the commission, is that solar powered irrigation on farms is growing too fast. But we see the success of solar programs as proof that this program is economically beneficial for farmers who are actively seeking solutions like solar to lower and stabiles their energy costs.” 

However, back on June 19 this year, Idaho Power filed an application to the Public Utilities Commission, proposing to modify schedule 84, which is the solar net metering program that Lisa just described. This kick-started a process a process of public comments and hearing. On September 28, a public workshop was held with commission staff. On October 13, a public hearing occurred, where citizens gave their opinion directly to the three commissioners. On October 27, 96 comments, including a letter of concern signed by 16 Idaho organizations, including the Sierra club, were submitted to the commission, and on November 17, Idaho Power offered a written reply to nearly all the comments.

But the jury is still out on a decision, we are expecting to hear a verdict from the public utilities commission sometime in December.  

In simple terms, Idaho Power’s proposal would mean that after December 1, future investment in solar would be accompanied by significant uncertainty. The proposal suggest that significant changes to the net-metering program are on the horizon. 

But, why does this matter to everyday Idahoans? Well, as we know, agriculture is the backbone of Idaho’s economy. Farming doesn’t just provide Idahoans with jobs, but it’s part of our historical and cultural identity. Considering the rapid increase in agricultural technologies and the growing concerns of over a changing climate, now more than ever farmers need to adapt to the current economic and environmental pressures to be resilient.  

And key to this is retaining the financial incentive for investment in renewable energy. 

John O’Connor is an Idaho farmer with 45 years of experiences, who has a degree in Agricultural Economics and is currently heading a $10,000 sustainable agriculture grant. John spoke to whether solar is a good idea in Idaho. 

“It makes a ton of sense, in a desert with a lot of sunshine, for solar powers to be part of the system. It’s not really about if you want to pay (for adaptation and mitigation to climate and associated renewable energy issues), it’s how do you want to pay? We are going to pay for all these things. Look at all the people that have been suffering from natural disasters, what is that, chum change? There are a lot of way to pay for these things, I’d like to be proactive if I can, and not just fix things after they are broken.”

John believes that we have to shift to sustainable farming and that solar can play a role in this. If we don’t, we may incur the real costs in the future. 

Solar has proven to be an extremely affordable energy alternative. However, its financial viability is within the hands of Idaho Power and the Public Utilities Commission. The question is, will the Public Utilities Commission consider the environmental and societal benefits of solar, when making their decision? 

Rachel 12: Join us next Tuesday morning at 7,35, where we speak to a representative of the Boise Citizens Climate Lobby and Idaho Power.  

Please note, Idaho Power is an underwriter of KISU.