Idaho Power's Long-term Energy Plan
by Jennifer Sandmann
TWIN FALLS -- The West's persistent drought is among the factors driving the state's largest electric utility to look beyond its hydropower base for new generation sources that include more coal power and the development of wind resources.
Other factors driving the company's 10-year plan that is updated every other year are higher natural gas prices, a growing customer base and public demands for renewable energy sources.
As recently as 1998, hydropower provided 50 percent of Idaho Power's electricity, the company says. Hydropower can provide about 60 percent in a normal water year.
But last year the company's 17 dams on the Snake River and its tributaries produced just 37 percent of its electricity. Fossil fuel generation supplied the bulk of the company's power generation -- about 42 percent.
Idaho Power bought 21 percent of its power last year from the wholesale market, a number the company wants to reduce to 4 percent by 2012. Idaho Power proposes developing other generation sources to do that. The drought that crept up on Idaho in the summer of 2000 doesn't show clear signs of letting up soon, and the company's residential customer base is projected to grow by nearly 20 percent during the next 10 years.
"We've had a lot of heavy thunderstorms lately. If you happen to get under one of those, it might look like the end of the drought," said Jay Breidenbach, a hydrologist with the National Weather Service in Boise.
The rainfall can help farmers carry their crops through the season, but Breidenbach and others say it's isolated and won't necessarily pull Idaho out of a drought.
It's the winter snowpack that counts, weather experts say. That's when Western states get the bulk of the precipitation that supplies reservoirs.
"The fact that the forecast for the next three months has below-normal precipitation, we're not too worried about that," Breidenbach said.
The winter weather outlook doesn't show a preferred direction for above or below normal precipitation, he said. That's good news, he said, considering over the past few years the winter weather forecast has called for below-normal precipitation and above-normal temperatures.
What the West really needs is a situation developing in the Pacific Ocean that would bring lots of winter moisture, said Mike Hayes, a climate specialist with the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. That isn't happening.
"Multiple-year droughts are a normal part of the climate in the Western United States. What you are seeing is not that unusual," Hayes said.
There is disagreement among weather forecasters over how long the cycle may continue, he said. In the past the West has seen periods of 15 to 25 years of drought. The possibility that the West could have entered one of those cycles hasn't gone unnoticed, Hayes said. Decision-makers are being advised to factor that scenario into long-term water needs, he said.
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