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Over the past decade, the Idaho Conservation League has encouraged Idaho’s utilities to move toward a careful, orderly transition from coal to clean energy sources to combat climate change. We see great success with Avista, Idaho Power, and Rocky Mountain Power all committing to a clean energy future. 

Our work with these utilities, regulators, and other stakeholders focused on finding comprehensive solutions to replace old, polluting coal plants with modern, clean resources while maintaining the reliable and affordable energy we all enjoy. 

Congressman Simpson’s Northwest in Transition framework provides the region the leadership, tools, and funding to restore Idaho’s salmon and steelhead, secure a clean energy future, and combat climate change by moving toward clean energy sources like solar and wind. We can apply what ICL has learned from our work helping transition Idaho utilities away from coal to get a better understanding of how Simpson’s concept could work. 

A perfect example of working together to design an energy system that protects our public health and environment is Idaho Power’s recent swapping of energy from coal with clean solar. Idaho Power stated in October 2020 that accelerating the exit from the Valmy coal plant in Nevada from 2025 to 2022 could save customers $3 million. Meanwhile, Idaho Power contracted with the Jackpot Solar project, to be built south of Twin Falls, which is among the lowest cost power contracts ever signed. 

Similarly, Avista recently announced that accelerating its exit from the Colstrip plant in Montana to 2022 would also save Idahoans money.  And Rocky Mountain Power just announced they are accelerating the closure of the aging Hayden coal-fired power plant in Colorado

All of these utility companies’ decisions are based on a careful comparison of a coal-fired power plant’s role in the larger system. Using traditional system planning tools, they consistently point to opportunities for cheaper and cleaner alternatives that ensure a reliable, affordable system for customers.

With Congressman Simpson’s Northwest in Transition concept, we now have the opportunity to apply these same lessons and techniques to another critical issue – restoring salmon and ensuring Northwest communities opportunities to replace old, polluting resources with modern, clean options, like wind and solar. ICL’s experience with Idaho utilities and their move away from coal proves we can do this while improving reliability and reducing costs for customers. Here is a step-by-step guide.

First, identify the problem

Just like a variety of factors influence climate change, several factors impact salmon. Idahoans can’t control some of them, like ocean conditions. But for those we can control – habitat quality and the ability to migrate – we have an obligation to act. 

Due to decades of work and billions of dollars, Idaho has fantastic salmon habitat. But the fishes’ ability to migrate from their Edenic home in Idaho to the ocean and back is primarily impeded by four dams on the lower Snake River in Washington state. Just as we do to replace a coal-fired power plant, we can use the Bonneville Power Administration’s and the Northwest Power and Conservation Council’s tools to assess the precise services these dams provide to the overall electric grid.

Turns out, some of the analysis is done. These four dams provide a very limited service – balancing the grid during short-term periods while operators adjust the suite of 31 dams, including the massive Grand Coulee, to maintain longer-term balance. Because these four dams provide short-term flexibility in producing energy for the system, Rep. Simpson’s proposal focuses on developing modern batteries with $1.25 billion proposed for energy storage research and development in Lewiston and the Tri-Cities, WA. Similarly, the plan provides $2 billion to the BPA and others to make repairs and develop new tools to improve how our regional electric grid operates. These investments to create a more flexible, efficient system will help salmon while also enabling our region to become a leader in one of the fastest-growing sectors in the world – energy storage and management.  

The second step is easier – consider all the options

Once the BPA and Power Planning Council use their tools to understand in greater detail the services these four dams provide to the larger overall system,  we can assess other options. Fortunately, our experience with Idaho electric utilities shows that vast amounts of affordable, reliable, and clean power are available now. 

Recently, both Avista and Rocky Mountain Power told Washington state regulators they are currently in negotiations for new clean energy projects in the region that are likely to further accelerate coal-fired power plant closures. This same opportunity applies to replacing the energy from the dams. Simpson’s proposal provides the region $10 billion to help this transition. 

Now we have both the opportunity to build a clean, reliable future and the funding ensures the transition is affordable for all Idahoans. All we need to do is roll up our sleeves and find solutions, together.

What can I do to support Simpson’s proposal?

Write Idaho’s Congressional delegation and Governor Brad Little to demonstrate your support for Congressman Simpson’s proposal. The concept is a framework that takes all stakeholders into account and seeks to make all communities whole, while restoring Idaho’s wild salmon and steelhead to abundance and ending a long-standing cycle of litigation. ICL believes it’s the start of developing solutions together for Idahoans and the people of the Northwest. Urge your family, friends, and community members to speak up for a prosperous future for Idaho.

It’s also important to engage other elected officials at all levels — state legislators, county commissioners, and city councils and mayors — and utility board directors to let them know that this is an opportunity to lead their communities toward a better future as envisioned in Congressman Simpson’s concept.