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You’d think that, as Idaho’s leading voice for protecting the air you breathe, ICL would happily support pollution controls at coal plants. But ICL is challenging Avista’s plan to do just that. Here is our story of why ICL thinks installing Smartburn technology on the aging Colstrip plant is not a smart investment.
The Big Picture
For years, we’ve talked about the need to replace coal power with clean energy. To this end, ICL engages in utility planning processes and proceedings before the state regulators, the Public Utilities Commissions. It is in these venues that ICL translates our big picture goal into incremental wins.
Earlier this year, Avista filed a general rate case, where the utility asks state regulators to approve increases to customers’ electric rates. To prove that the rate increase is necessary, the utility opens its books to show plans for capital investments, costs to operate and maintain the system, and ways to collect this money from individual customers. ICL engages in this public process to ensure that utilities spend money on clean energy, not coal power.
The Fine Print
When we looked into Avista’s request, we found buried deep in the documents that the company had agreed to pay its share of the cost to install expensive pollution controls at the Colstrip coal plant. Avista owns just a portion of the total plant located in Colstrip, Mont. The plant operator, Talen Energy, installed something called Smartburn technology to try to reduce nitrogen oxide pollution. Talen claimed-and Avista agreed-that this project was required to comply with the Clean Air Act.
Upon looking further, we found that the Smartburn project wouldn’t really promote compliance with the Clean Air Act. Rather, the Colstrip owners were speculating on future requirements. We researched the legal requirements and found that Montana has not begun measuring air quality needs and assigning pollution controls that might implicate the Colstrip plant in 2021. Meanwhile, new clean energy options are falling in cost; power from Colstrip may be more expensive than other options by then.
Beyond not being legally required, Smartburn doesn’t appear to actually reduce nitrogen oxide emissions. Rather, installing these ineffective controls now could enable the plant to run for many more years, all the while spewing carbon pollution uncontrolled into our air.
In the end, we concluded that Avista has the time to consider a variety of ways to address the pollution and economics of the Colstrip plant. During negotiations on a settlement with Avista, regulators and major customers, we raised our issues and sought common ground. And while ICL agreed with many of the compromises, we could not agree to ask customers to pay for unnecessary and ineffective pollution controls that would not address climate change.
So ICL challenged Avista’s request to collect the company’s share of the Smartburn project from customers. It’s just not a smart investment in our future.
Speak Up for Other Alternatives
If you live near Coeur d’Alene, you can attend a public hearing Thursday, Nov 30, and let the Idaho Public Utilities Commission know whether you want Avista to consider a range of alternatives before asking customers to pay for pollution controls.
ICL will take our next step at a technical hearing before the PUC on Friday, Dec 8. Stay tuned for more.