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Avista asks to restart conservation upgrade rebates in Idaho

Avista Utilities wants to resurrect a program that gives Idaho customers rebates for upgrading to high-efficiency natural gas furnaces and other energy conservation projects.

The rebate program was killed in 2012, when wholesale prices for natural gas dropped sharply. Under the cost-benefit formula used by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, company officials said it was hard to justify the rebates, which are paid for by a surcharge on all customers’ bills.

Avista has proposed restarting the program on Jan. 1, even though natural gas prices remain low. The Spokane-based utility’s request has the support of energy-efficiency advocates, including the Idaho Conservation League, and advocates for low-income residents. Together, they’re backing a different formula for evaluating the program, which demonstrates benefits to customers even during periods of low gas prices.

“A lot of people understand that energy efficiency is the right thing to do … Avista strongly believes that energy efficiency is the right thing to do,” said Chris Drake, Avista’s manager of energy efficiency.

Some Idaho customers have been frustrated that the rebates were dropped in their state but continued in Washington, he said.

In the past, the program has helped offset Idaho gas customers’ costs for energy saving projects, with rebates ranging from $100 to several thousand dollars, depending on the project’s size. Customers can still qualify for a rebate if they switch from electric baseboard heat to a gas furnace, but there aren’t rebates for upgrading existing gas furnaces or appliances to higher-efficiency models.

If the rebates are reinstated, Avista is projecting annual savings of 233,000 therms of natural gas, or enough gas to heat about 318 Idaho households for a year. The $1.25 million cost would be paid for through a monthly surcharge, which would amount to about $1.11 for a typical residential gas customer.

Washington residential gas customers currently pay about $1.87 per month for a similar program.

Energy-efficiency programs are good for air quality as well as ratepayers’ wallets, said Ben Otto, an energy advocate for the Idaho Conservation League, which supports reinstating the program.

Conserving energy is a simple way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, Otto said. And with some type of cost for carbon pollution likely in the future, both utilities and their customers will benefit from reducing emissions, he said.

“The Environmental Protection Agency, through the Clean Power Plan, has indicated there is a cost to carbon pollution that we should start paying for,” Otto said.

Idaho’s low-income residents would also benefit from restarting the program, said Mark Fleming, housing program director for Community Action Partnership, also known as CAP.

CAP contracts with Avista to help low-income clients make their homes more energy efficient, reducing their monthly gas bills. About 2,600 households in Idaho’s 10 northern counties could potentially benefit, Fleming said.

“We’re really excited about this,” Fleming said Monday. “We’ve been hoping for this ever since the program was stopped.”

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission is accepting comments on the proposal through Dec. 10.


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