Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Ketchum considers cutting cord with Idaho Power

Express Staff Writer

A decision by Bonners Ferry officials 80 years ago is still paying off for the northern Idaho city's residents.

The electric and water utilities had reliability issues, so the city in the 1920s bought them, forming a municipal utility that is still in operation into the next century.

Their hydropower plant generates 4.4 megawatts, or 30 percent of the city's—and a sawmill's—requirements, said City Administrator Steven Boorman. The rest they buy from the Bonneville Power Administration.

"It's wonderful for the customers," Boorman said. "Our rates are significantly lower."

Ketchum city leaders are looking at ways to address issues with Idaho Power while at the same time minimizing environmental impacts.

"Let's talk about the cost of doing business while being good stewards of the environment," said economic development consultant Tom Hudson. "You have extra geothermal, and you waste it. You've got great solar, and you don't use it. And you've got wind. You've got all the makings of sustainable energy development. You could become a power producer."

The city of Ketchum is under a franchise agreement with Idaho Power. In five years when that expires, Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall wants the city to be ready with other options.

"We would be more in control of our own destiny," he said.

The city is also hoping to demonstrate concepts of sustainability and energy conservation, said City Administrator Ron LeBlanc.

"We want to be a leader in that regard," he said. "Controlling the electric power system will fit right in with that."

The city would be able to do that by creating incentives for alternative energy sources, he said.

"Idaho Power is in the business of selling electricity, and it's counter-intuitive to expect them to promote energy conservation," he added.

The city is in talks with the owner of Guyer Hot Springs, which could potentially serve as a power source, whether through steam or geothermal heat, to melt snow or heat buildings.

Solar energy could be used to provide lighting along the bike path, LeBlanc said.

"We're exploring every possibility," he said.

The other motivating factor is that Idaho Power is not addressing community needs, according to the city.

"There are big gaps in service with this provider that cause us to look at other options," Hall said.

"This community voted overwhelmingly to add a 3 percent additional franchise tax (to bills)," LeBlanc said of burying power lines. "It seems like every project, all we get from Idaho Power is resistance and an uncooperative attitude."

LeBlanc also criticized the company for deficiencies in communications, with both the city and with local citizens.

"Their inability to coordinate effectively with other utilities is a major problem," he said. "No one took the project management approach to coordinate and communicate with all affected parties."

Dan Olmstead, spokesman for Idaho Power, said coordination among all utilities is necessary for work to be completed. He stressed that between one and a half and two company representatives are dedicated to the Ketchum and Sun Valley area to respond to comments.

"The franchise agreement addresses master planing," he said. "That could be where some of the communication issues are. It does take communication and we need to continuously work on that."

If the city decided against renewing its franchise agreement with Idaho Power, it could form a municipal utility and buy power from a provider such as the Bonneville Power Administration as part of a co-op, LeBlanc said.

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