News Column

The Idaho Statesman, Rocky Barker column

June 16, 2014

By Rocky Barker, The Idaho Statesman

June 16--The market can make wind and solar power more valuable and our electric grid more efficient.

Right now, when Rocky Mountain Power wants to buy electricity for Eastern Idaho on the spot market, one of its people picks up the telephone.

If the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission approves a proposal later this year by PacifiCorp and California Independent System Operator, which operates that state's transmission grid, such trades could be handled every five minutes, with a computer awarding the bids to the lowest-cost provider available.

This energy imbalance market, as it is called, would link the entire West -- except for the Pacific Northwest (including Idaho Power). This would allow utilities access to all of the lowest-cost power on a nearly real-time basis across the region.

What that means is that the power surges and drops caused by wind and solar, which today force utilities to have costly backups, could be smoothed out. That would increase the grid's reliability by better lining up power supply and demand with when electricity is consumed.

The computers would identify changes in supply and demand, and automatically adjust to find the best generating source to meet fluctuating demand across a larger region. It also, on paper at least, would help the grid automatically handle electricity bottlenecks on transmission lines.

Right now, Idaho Power has to have coal, gas, hydropower or some other base-load power source ready to come online immediately to integrate the solar and wind energy it receives. In the case of coal plants, the company has to fire up the plant and burn coal even when the grid doesn't need it. This new market system would make it possible for Rocky Mountain and other utilities to instead use generation resources on other grids across the West to help balance its wind and solar.

Rocky Mountain is currently one of 38 grid operators manually balancing its territory every hour. If the proposal goes through, there would be only one market operator, run by PacifiCorp and the California grid operator, balancing the whole region automatically.

The Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies much of rural Idaho and Idaho Falls, has chosen to stay out of the new market for now and has warned in its filings with FERC that the computer's framework could encourage gaming, an issue to which regulators are sensitive after the Enron crisis in 2001. BPA is working to put the same kind of technology into its own Pacific Northwest grid, which includes Idaho Power's grid.

This new technology is part of the promised "smart grid" that is revolutionizing our electric generation system. It's the kind of change you wouldn't notice when you turn on the lights or run your dryer.

But like good markets everywhere, it would make life better for both the buyers and sellers.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484


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Source: Idaho Statesman (Boise)