The global trend in electricity and energy markets toward deregulation is now about a quarter-century old. But what began as a movement now looks more like drift, at best. In a report issued earlier this year, European energy markets were found to be suffering from ”serious malfunctions,” which prompted an investigation by the office of the European Union's Competition Commissioner. The U.S. energy sector has never fully recovered from the well-publicized debacles of several years ago, when the state of California was racked by power shortages after corrupt energy traders such as Enron Corp. manipulated the markets.
Still, though much of the energy business has come unmoored in the deluge of deregulation, a few scattered utilities have gone on operating much as they always have, unaffected by the winds blowing this way or that. Among them, Idaho Power Co., based in Boise, has been a particular rock of stability. It is grappling with the usual array of problems facing today's electric utilities: meeting growth in demand while also minimizing environmental impact; keeping rates competitive; ensuring that its grids are stable while around them instability becomes more and more common; and protecting workers in occupations that can be inherently dangerous.
Following the wishes of the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, Idaho Power has so far resisted pressure from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to sell its transmission lines to independent companies, as someï»' U.S. utilities have done in the past two decades. FERC's agenda is to foster competition in the transmission of electricity, but the Idaho commission cares mainly about price and reliability, and it is convinced that unbundling transmission from generation will help neither of these objectives.
Idaho Power prides itself on the care it takes maintaining the basic physical elements of its grid, starting with the distribution transformers seen being tested and repaired [ see photos].
The utility has a peak load of about 3000 megawatts and serves about 460 000 customers, who are spread out across the southern part of its home state and parts of Oregon. It is regarded as one of the better-managed utilities in the country, with some of the lowest rates.
An average of 10 000 new customers move into Idaho Power's service area every year, meaning that the company has to increase generation by about 2 percent a year, without incurring excessive environmental costs. The utility's generation mix includes hydro, coal, and some natural gas. But hydropower, the cleanest source, is a shrinking part of the pie; it now meets only 38 percent of demand, down from 50 percent as recently as seven years ago. Meanwhile, there are ominous signs that the river flow itself is abating, and in a way that can't be accounted for by seasonal swings and multiyear cycles.
The issue is all the more worrisome in light of the near-term political climate. Company officials anticipate that Congress will eventually impose a carbon tax to encourage reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Idaho Power assumes it will be paying taxes of US $12 per ton of carbon dioxide beginning around 2008. But growth in demand being what it is, the company is considering building a new 500-MW coal-fired generating plant even as it adjusts to the prospect of a carbon tax.
As Idaho Power struggles with such ironies in its long-term planning, it still must keep a vigilant eye on hourly fluctuations in supply and demand, and it must have workers out in the field doing the dangerous and challenging job of inspecting and servicing the lines, as the photos on the following pages illustrate.
MARSHA LEESE [right] works on the generation and reliability side of Idaho Power Co.'s operations, as chief dispatcher. She determines how much power is made, where it goes, and when. Most days she doesn't have much to worry about. But it's not always so. On 2 July 1996, when many parts of the Western U.S. power system suffered outages, her part of the grid was going down too, and there was nothing she could do to stop it. The root cause of the blackouts--the shifting snowflake that unleashed the avalanche--was a short circuit in a transmission line bringing power out of the Bridger coal-fired generator, a Wyoming plant partly owned by Idaho Power. An event like that stays in the memory of a grid dispatcher.