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Utilities, Renewables Developers Set For PUC Fight

JOHN MILLER

BOISE, Idaho (AP) â¿¿ State electricity regulators aiming to set the course for Idaho's renewables industry for years to come will hold hearings next week on long-running and bitter disputes between utilities like Idaho Power Co. and independent wind, solar and biogas developers.

The Idaho Public Utilities Commission has scheduled three days of hearings starting Tuesday, to be attended by a crowd of lawyers, utility executives and environmentalists.

Regulators hope to settle differences, including how to set the price utilities must pay renewables developers for their power and whether utilities can refuse to buy power from alternative projects when relatively few people are using electricity. There's also the vexing issue of whether lucrative environmental credits that accompany renewable energy projects should be the property of the utilities â¿¿ or the independent developers.

"These issues have been going on since 2005," said Gene Fadness, the PUC spokesman. Commissioners "are more than ready to have all the parties come to some sort of agreement."

For most of the last decade, disputes between alternative power producers like Exergy Development Group, a Boise-based wind-power developer, and IdaCorp Inc.'s Idaho Power, Rocky Mountain Power and Avista Corp., the three largest regional utilities, have turned the state's renewables landscape into a mine field of contention.

The utilities argue that wind producers like Exergy have abused a 1978 law known as Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA, to secure attractive contracts for their energy, driving up costs for ratepayers and making the energy supply less predictable and reliable.

Idaho Power argues that only by changing the formula that determines electricity rates utilities must pay independent producers â¿¿ it's based on the price of natural gas â¿¿ and limiting contracts to as few as five years, down from the customary 20, will ratepayers be protected.

"Certainly, it's significant for our customers, they're the ones ultimately paying for the electricity," said Brad Bowlin, an Idaho Power spokesman. "What we're really trying to do to with this is prevent further harm to our customers."

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