Idaho Power, rPlus, Clenera, Starsight see opportunities everywhere
On Oct. 26, during Boise Entrepreneur Week, Adam Richens, Idaho Power’s senior vice president and chief operating officer, gave a TEDx style talk on the future of energy in Idaho.
Using his teen daughter as an example, he asked the audience of more than 50 whether she’d be likely to own a car in 2035.
Most people in the room said no, and Richens agreed. Autonomous vehicles, transportation as a service, and transit sharing will make privately owned cars all but obsolete. That’s why Idaho Power is among Gem State companies that are planning for 100% clean energy by 2045.
Richens said that while Idaho has been fortunate to benefit from clean hydroelectric power as our major source of energy for years, drought makes it difficult to sustain the current percentage of our energy makeup. Idaho Power is bullish on renewables and was the second utility in the nation to come up with the voluntary goal of 100% clean energy by 2045 (after Xcel in Colorado), he said.
Historically, the main barrier to investing in more solar, wind, and other renewable power sources has been the cost, but it has gone down dramatically over the past ten years, including an 85% decrease for solar power, a 49% decrease for wind, and the ability of mass storage networks to solve previous reliability issues, Richens said. As a result, nationally, 46% of new installs in 2022 were solar.
Idaho Power’s clean energy goal was informed by 2019 polling that asked customers if they supported 100% clean energy by 2045. More than 89% did. However, when asked if they’d pay even 5% more on their monthly bills to make it happen, customer support dropped dramatically.
“So yes, people want it, but it must be affordable and reliable,” Richens said.
Market forces and government incentives like the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) are making clean power more affordable. Richens said Idaho Power will hit 85% clean energy by 2030 and is in the process of severing ties with the two coal facilities the company has an ownership stake in by that date.
To make solar work for more people, Richens said battery storage and transmission are both key. Richens noted that Idaho’s “energy highways” are very congested right now, and experts say we need three or four times the transmission that exists right now to deliver a clean energy future.
“Transmission is hugely important, but you don’t hear about it,” Richens said. “You hear about solar. Solar is like Marcia from the Brady Bunch, and Jan is transmission. Jan wants more transmission. Don’t ignore Jan.”
Other challenges to Idaho’s clean energy future include supply chain problems, including the 450% increase in lithium cost. He said pre-Covid, batteries could be delivered 12 to 18 months after a signed agreement, but now it’s more like three years.
In addition to the role of solar and wind, Richens said hydro and small nuclear reactors are likely to play a major role. He believes small modular nuclear reactors (SNRs), which can be built off site in a factory and then delivered to a location, will become more prevalent in the next decade. The main issue with SNRs, Richens said, is the supply chain for HALEU, high assay, low-enriched uranium. The U.S. has loads of uranium, but right now, only Russia develops HALEU for commercial use.
Following Richens’ talk was a panel called “Decarbonized Energy with Clenera, Starsight, and rPlus,” that included Jeremy Kuhre, Landon Stroebel, and Lars Dorr each of those respective companies.
Clenera was co-founded by well-known Boise entrepreneur, Jason Ellsworth, and the first investor was John Arnold, a major natural gas trader, Kuhre explained. Clenera’s goal is to produce power where its workforce lives and works, and to that end, the company is very committed to the future of solar in Idaho. Kuhre said most of the ranchers Clenera works with really like the idea of raising this new crop as “solar ranchers” and leasing the land.
Stroebel and Dorr agreed that with the passage of the IRA, a lot is happening in this industry related to battery and pump storage that could not only benefit solar and wind, but also hydro and even nuclear power.
Stroebel said that the IRA was a tremendous help to the industry, with the “massive incentives” to build solar plants and has caused a “land grab” as savvy entrepreneurs and investors get in the game.
“In Idaho, I talk to a lot of executives in major solar companies and they are looking at Idaho because, number one, we have a lot of material sciences talent, and number two, we have cheap power, and hydro, wind, and solar are our main sources,” Stroebel said. “We have a huge opportunity in Idaho and this is the story I want to tell to anyone who will listen. The way these incentives are structured have created a race, an all out sprint to source new sites and develop manufacturing sites. If we’d play along, we’d win.”
Dorr said that the passage of the IRA simply accelerated what was happening anyway.
“It provides 10 years of certainty, and we’ve never had that historically in renewables,” he said. “People can get behind investing in it.”