Electric Idyll

Idaho’s major utility has resisted deregulation and is doing just fine

6 min read
Idaho Power’s dam at Swan Falls on the Snake River
Photos: Andy Anderson

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 some 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 LeesePhoto: Andy Anderson

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.

Idaho Power’s dam at Swan Falls on the Snake River [see photo] was built in the 1890s, and its turbines were the very first to produce electricity for the utility’s grid. Of course, most of the facility’s components, including the turbines—the latest are twin 12-megawatt machines—have been improved or replaced, sometimes several times over.

Situated in a beautifully forlorn location about 50 kilometers south of Boise, the Swan Falls dam takes advantage of a steep canyon that cuts through the Snake River floodplain, where a majority of Idaho’s citizens reside. It’s a “run of the river” dam: there’s little accumulation of water behind the structure; rather, the river flows straight through, driving the turbines.

Modifying the angle between the turbine blades and the oncoming water flow, to vary the torque, regulates the power level. In essence, a physicist would observe, the turbine is forever swimming against the whole of the river without ever getting anywhere.

Photo: Andy Anderson

The power plant pretty much runs itself, with just a couple of people staffing it on a typical day [above photo left]. Hundreds of dials in the dam’s control center [above photo right] provide water data, such as river level and wind speed (wind can push water up against the dam), and electrical data, such as the instantaneous power level.

Hydroelectric plants like Swan Falls consume no costly fuel, spew no carbon compounds that defrost the Arctic ice pack, and form no acidic sulfur molecules that kill trees far downwind. So, to meet new energy needs without further polluting the atmosphere, why not just build more Swans? The short answer is “dam-nation”—in North America, Europe, and other built-up places, most of the suitable hydro locations are already taken.

The people closest to the grid are those who service it: the linemen who must go wherever the lines go. Often they respond to a report of a problem from a key individual called, aptly, “the troubleman.” This person is a circuit-riding engineer who drives around the system constantly, doing nothing but finding faults. He looks at lines, poles, breakers, and all the other physical sinews and organs of the grid, in a grand tour that takes about 10 years to complete.

Linemen up on a pole face a unique and terrifying hazard, the literally hair-raising presence of 7200 volts. Oftentimes in Idaho the line repair work is done “hot,” without having the line turned off. That way there is no inconvenient interruption of service, and current continues to flow through the uninsulated lines during the procedure.

Photo: Andy Anderson

Idaho Power’s linemen often carry out their work not with “hot sticks,” the tools commonly used in this kind of operation to manipulate power cable safely, as seen in the photo at top left, but just with rubber gloves [far right].

With gloves that are rated up to 40 000 V, rubber arm protectors up to the shoulder [above center], and rubber blankets draped over the cables not being worked on, a lineman can handle the cable directly with gloved hands. But if any part of the worker’s body were to touch ground while working like that, instant electrocution is possible—hence the enormous precautions.

Doing this kind of work, “you have to leave ‘home’ at home,” the leader of a line crew observes. You can’t afford to let your concentration wander. The current at 7200 V is always there, waiting for its chance to jump to a new surface.

Thousands of repairs at 7200 V have been carried out with no ill effect. But sometimes there’s a serious accident, such as the recent one still on the minds of the linemen depicted in these photos. The incident took place not up a pole but down in the dirt. A lineman reached out for a line with gloves rated only up to 600 V, neglecting to test the wire with his meter.

While kneeling on the ground, what he found in his grasp was not a wire at 120 V—the wire on the home side of a transformer—but one at 7200. The bolt shot up his arm, through his body, and out the two points closest to earth, the knee of one leg and the foot of the other. The man was flaming so much his co-workers emptied a whole fire extinguisher putting him out.

Afterward he was in a coma for three weeks, and he should have died, but amazingly he came through. The ongoing treatment is not pretty and his heart is forever weakened, but he’s alive. This, too, is part of what it takes to keep a grid steadily producing the electricity everyone simply expects at the flip of a switch.

About the Author

Author PHILLIP F. SCHEWE is chief science writer at the American Institute of Physics, in College Park, Md. The text of this article is adapted from his book The Grid: Creating Electrical Energy, which will be published next year by the U.S. National Academies’ Joseph Henry Press.

Idaho photographer ANDY ANDERSON started taking pictures when he was a U.S. Air Force firefighter and crash rescue officer. He now divides his time between commercial assignments and art photography. His award-winning pictures have appeared in numerous magazines and journals.

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