So much has happened in the past several months that it is difficult to piece together and explain in one update. But the bottom line is that, since Idaho Power’s recent decision to phase out the North Valmy coal plant in Nevada, the North Idaho utility, Avista, has never had more pressure to follow suit.
Colstrip-The Liability We’ve All Been Paying For
For those of you in North Idaho who buy your electricity from Avista, part of your bill supports the Colstrip coal-fired power plant in eastern Montana. This coal plant is massive-one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the nation. Since the 1980s, Avista has owned 15% of units 3 and 4, two of the four Colstrip generating units.
A lot has changed since the 1980s, which has made it harder for the economics of coal plants like Colstrip to pencil out. In addition to fuel costs (a cost that doesn’t affect renewable energy like wind and solar), the price of power at Colstrip includes the cost of disposing the toxic coal ash resulting from burning coal.
For years, the Colstrip plant has dumped its coal ash in massive ponds that have leaked and contaminated the groundwater of a neighboring residential community. Following a series of lawsuits, all co-owning utilities (and their customers) are on the hook to clean up this mess. The operator of the Colstrip plant made an initial estimate of preliminary cleanup-$138 million-and the next two stages of cleanup are likely far more expensive!
Avista customers had no say in how the Colstrip plant would dispose of its waste and shouldn’t have to shoulder the cost of those careless decisions. In addition, the utility has yet to disclose how it plans to pay these costs and whether its shareholder or its customers will bear the burden. However, Avista’s potential new owner has made clear that it will not be on the hook for this liability.
The Black Sheep of the Utility Family
We also have neighbors to the west who are looking to exit early from Colstrip. Legislation passed in Oregon requires utilities distributing electricity in Oregon to preclude energy generated from coal by 2035 at the latest. As a result, Pacificorp and Portland General Electric, two large shareholders of Colstrip, are planning accordingly.
So too is Puget Sound Energy, the Washington-based utility that also aims to be out of Colstrip by at least 2035. This month, a PSE representative publicly stated that, based on customer feedback, it is considering a 2025 end date for Colstrip. In fact, PSE found that accelerating Colstrip’s end date to 2025 would only minimally increase customer rates–by less than 1%.
These examples all beg the question: why is Avista making plans as if Colstrip will operate indefinitely? In Avista’s 20-year planning document, Avista expects to distribute energy from Colstrip at least through 2037. As a result, Avista is failing to take the financial and logistical steps necessary to prepare for an earlier retirement of Colstrip. Indeed, Avista seems to be using very different numbers than its fellow utilities because Avista estimates that replacing Colstrip would cost between $235 and $300 million, a far cry from PSE’s estimates.
Avista has some explaining to do given the poor market for coal energy, its out-of-step actions relative to other utilities and the enormous risk that it’s burdening Idaho families and small businesses with.
What Are We Doing About It?
ICL has intervened in the rate case that Avista submitted to the Public Utilities Commission to advocate on behalf of clean, affordable and dependable energy. Stay tuned-and join us for upcoming public workshops in Lewiston and Coeur d’Alene.