Idaho PUC looks at arguments over Ecoplexus intervention in QF cases

Ahead of June 24 and June 30 public hearings, there is an argument ongoing at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission over whether solar power developer Ecoplexus Inc. can be granted a late intervention in a case where the commission is considering severe limits on renewable energy qualifying facility (QF) projects requested by PacifiCorp, Idaho Power and Avista Utilities.

The utilities said that they have been inundated lately with requests for QF contracts, with those contracts representing far more capacity than they actually need. So PacifiCorp and Avista want the commission to order shorter contract durations for QFs under the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA). The commission has already granted that relief to Idaho Power,

On May 12, Ecoplexus filed a late motion to intervene. In May 21 testimony supporting that intervention request, Erik A. Stuebe, President of Ecoplexus, wrote about Idaho Power and PacifiCorp d/b/a Rocky Mountain Power: “My testimony highlights the fact that while each of the foregoing utilities may have petitioned the Commission on the basis of the potential of too much ‘in territory’ QF generation versus retail load, and the need to ensure ratepayer indifference, the reality is that each utility has a unique situation and the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and ratepayers may be best served to have separate outcomes or structures for each. Ecoplexus does not support the proposed change to a shorter term for QFs and believe it’s most practical to deal with the petitioning utilities’ concerns via contract structuring as opposed to contract term.

“We don’t believe changing the QF contract term address the issues raised by the petitioning utilities. Indeed, any changes now to contract terms and additional viable renewable energy resources may have negative consequences related to future Environmental Protection Agency (‘EPA’) compliance requirements for Idaho.

“In regard to the petitioning utilities, we believe that Rocky Mountain Power’s situation is different than Idaho Power’s and that they have been engaged in an effort to stymie QF development in their territory altogether for some time. This is supported by Rocky Mountain Power’s treatment of Ecoplexus’ fifteen proposed QF project applications submitted to the utility between 2014 to the present. Additionally, we believe Rocky Mountain Power’s selective use of certain information done so to draw incorrect conclusions about alleged ratepayer harm due to QF development. Simultaneously, Rocky Mountain Power is turning a blind eye to the benefits of a balanced amount of solar QF development in its territory – benefits that could mitigate certain risks inherent to the utility’s Preferred Portfolio as described in the recently-released 2015 Integrated Resource Plan….”

Stuebe added: “Regardless of Rocky Mountain Power’s stated PURPA obligations, the fact remains that the utility, according to the recently released 2015 IRP, has not even a single solar PURPA contract in Idaho. To our knowledge, and Rocky Mountain Power has confirmed orally that Ecoplexus’ proposed projects are the first QF solar generation projects in their queue in Idaho. PacifiCorp states that it has ‘a total of 31 solar projects under contract representing 579 MW of nameplate capacity. Of these, fifteen projects totaling 523 MW are new since the 2013 IRP Update. In reviewing these 579 MW of solar projects under contract, all of them are sited in either Utah or Oregon – not Idaho. The vast majority of Rocky Mountain Power’s stated PURPA obligations are wind QFs, which total 166 MW. Moreover, Rocky Mountain Power, in its Petition, does not differentiate between the types of technologies that qualify as a QF (e.g., wind, solar, biomass, cogeneration, hydro, etc.), nor does it opine on the unique benefits of each technology, particularly distributed generation utility scale solar. Those benefits can include locational ones in terms of less line losses, potential transmission and distribution upgrade expense deferment, and reactive power supply or voltage stabilization.”

Rocky Mountain Power filed a May 21 objection to the Ecoplexus intervention, noting that the commission set a March 27 intervention deadline. “Rocky Mountain Power hereby incorporates and joins in the arguments in the Idaho Power Motion objecting to the Intervention Petitionm” the utility said. “In addition, Rocky Mountain Power urges the Commission to deny the Intervention Petition because the interests of Ecoplexus in this case are not unique; they will be covered to a large extent by parties with similar interests who timely intervened and filed at least one round of testimony already. Allowing Ecoplexus to intervene in this case at this late stage would disrupt the process and be prejudicial to the utilities.”

The three utilities want variations of the same basic relief

The Idaho commission on Feb. 5 had granted an Idaho Power request to reduce the duration of sales agreements with solar and wind PURPA projects that are larger than 100 kW and other PURPA projects – such as geothermal, industrial cogeneration and hydro – that generate more than 10 average megawatts. Idaho Power originally sought to reduce the contract length from 20 years to two years. The commission approved five-year contract lengths while it further examines the case. Since that decision, Avista Utilities and Rocky Mountain Power requested similar treatment.

The federal PURPA law requires regulated utilities to buy energy from qualifying renewable generation projects at rates established by state commissions. The rate to be paid to QFs is called an “avoided-cost rate,” because it is based on the cost the utility avoids by not having to generate the energy itself or buy it from another source. The commission must ensure the avoided-cost rate is reasonable because the price utilities pay to QF developers is passed on to its customers. While PURPA requires utilities to buy from QFs, the law leaves it up to states to determine avoided-cost rates and other contract terms and conditions.

  • Idaho Power claimed that a glut of solar projects will drive up rates and threaten the utility’s ability to reliably deliver energy. The commission recently approved 13 Idaho Power agreements with QF developers for 400 MW of solar. Idaho Power claims it has an additional 885 MW of QF solar capacity in its queue actively seeking energy-sale agreements with 2016 on-line dates. Idaho Power said continued creation of 20-year contracts places undue risk on customers at a time when the utility says it has sufficient resources to meet customer demand.
  • Within five days of the Feb. 5 commission order that reduced the length of Idaho Power’s contracts, PacifiCorp on March 2 said in an application for relief filed with the the commission that it received four pricing requests totaling 130 MW from QF developers situated in Idaho Power’s service territory but seeking to wheel their output into Rocky Mountain Power’s territory. PacifiCorp claimed project developers are seeking the agreements “in order to secure a more favorable 20-year contract with PacifiCorp.” PacifiCorp now has projects seeking contracts totaling 275.5 MW in its Idaho territory. PacifiCorp has 189.6 MW of existing Idaho PURPA contracts – for a total of 465 MW of existing and proposed PURPA generation, enough power to supply 108% of PacifiCorp’s average Idaho retail load. While the commission adopted a temporary five-year contract limit while it processes the case, PacifiCorp is asking that the commission enact a permanent three-year limit.
  • While Avista Utilities does not claim a particular number of QF projects seeking contracts, the utility expressed concern that “PURPA developers that previously planned to sell the output from their projects to Idaho Power may seek to sell such output to Avista.”

The commission has consolidated all three utility dockets into one proceeding.

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.