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Idaho takes comments on energy plan update

BOISE – As Idaho lawmakers work on the first major update to their groundbreaking 2007 state energy plan, draft recommendations would have them back off from pushing incentives for renewable energy development and drop energy efficiency and conservation from the “highest priority” to just a priority.

Recommendations also call for lawmakers to increase the push for solar energy development and power from woody biomass in Idaho; find new ways to help low-income people afford power; and end Idaho’s distinction as the only Western state without a consumer advocate in its utility rate-setting process at the state Public Utilities Commission.

“I’m glad we’re getting the input,” said state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, co-chairman of the joint legislative committee that’s writing the new plan.

Eskridge is unhappy with the idea of dropping energy efficiency and conservation from the “highest” priority in the plan, a recommendation that came from the board of the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance, a group appointed by Gov. Butch Otter. “I think that downgrades the role of conservation and just kind of lumps it in with everything else. From my perspective, we need to keep ‘highest’ in there, so that’s the argument I’ll be making,” he said.

The alliance board includes representatives of the state’s largest utilities, the Idaho Farm Bureau, Simplot Corp., the Idaho National Laboratory, the Center for Advanced Energy Studies and state government.

Idaho state public utilities Commissioner Paul Kjellander, an alliance board member, said, “Why get into a ranking debate?” Such ranking, he said, is unnecessary.

“But energy efficiency is certainly an area that the utilities and regulators and I think just about everybody who is associated with the energy sector sees as a significant piece of the puzzle,” Kjellander said.

The alliance board recommended removing frequent references to “incentives” from the energy plan in response to this year’s legislative debate over incentives for wind power development, Kjellander said; lawmakers opted to end a tax incentive amid protests that wind resources are being over-developed in eastern Idaho.

“Incentives, too, in the midst of a recession are sometimes harder to gain support for,” Kjellander said. The board called instead for “encouraging” renewable energy development, which Kjellander said “could be a more broad approach” that could include incentives or other moves.

Idaho’s 2007 energy plan focused on an incentive-based approach to renewables, rather than imposing mandatory standards for percentages of renewables, as many states have done.

Among those submitting comments so far is the Idaho AARP, which wrote, “Energy affordability should be a priority for the Idaho Energy Plan. … The need for additional assistance for families struggling with high energy bills is as great today as it ever was.”

The group also called for creating a consumer advocate office in Idaho to represent rate-payers in utility rate cases. That’s something state Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, pushed unsuccessfully in the state Legislature in 2001 and 2002, and Keough said she’s been hearing a resurgence of interest in the idea.

She noted that her constituents in Bonner and Boundary counties see news reports about the Washington consumer advocate “participating very aggressively in representing the consumer in rate cases on that side of the border,” often involving the same utility that serves them in North Idaho. “I’ve actually had constituents clip out the newspaper articles in the Spokesman and send them to me, saying, ‘Where is this department in Idaho?’ ” Keough said.

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