Idaho Power thinks a piece of county-owned property near Glendale Road could be a good fit for its first subscription-based solar array, but on Tuesday, the county commissioners seemed less certain.

If the county agrees, the one-megawatt proposal would cover a portion of a county Road and Bridge Department lot, slotting in alongside an area earmarked for a future gravel pit. First, though, Idaho Power would need to have enough subscribers to buy into the project—by initial estimates, 3,625 shares sold at $389 each. And, to make things pencil out, it would need the county to effectively donate the seven acres needed for the array.

Those numbers, coupled with the opportunity cost of giving up the land, gave the commissioners pause.

“This is a very progressive community,” Commissioner Dick Fosbury said. “We’re very interested in sustainability. No question, the concept fits our culture. But the question remains—what’s in it for the county, if we were to take this [land] out of service for Road and Bridge? So far, I’m not convinced that it seems viable.”

Board Chairman Jacob Greenberg put it a slightly different way: Is it about altruism, providing a renewable energy option for residents so inclined? Or, could the county see a tangible benefit—like a savings on its own electricity costs through opting in?

“I just don’t see the answer to these questions,” he said. “I think there are other options—I just don’t know what they are yet. We need to determine where our goals are on this.”

The community solar field would allow people who can’t or won’t put panels on their home to get a piece of renewable energy. Anyone could buy in, though. Idaho Power has stated it intends to go completely renewable by 2045; people who don’t want to wait can effectively pay to offset the footprint of their energy consumption.

A Blaine County project would be Idaho Power’s second shot at its Community Solar Pilot Program. Under that model, users pay a one-time subscription fee up front in exchange for an annual credit off their power bill over the life of the system—typically 25 years. Idaho Power uses the charge to build the farm, and the power it generates flows back into the utility’s grid, but it doesn’t earn a return. The subscribers are basically investors; their capital goes toward upfront costs and construction, after which it belongs to them.

They own it, that is, if the community generates enough money to cover construction. That’s what stalled its first attempt, in an open, company-owned field by a substation 4 miles southeast of downtown Boise.

There, Idaho Power tried to sell 1,563 subscriptions at a one-time charge of $562—what amounts to a 25-year payback period based on the 3.5-cent credit per kilowatt hour generated for that project. That’s more than two times longer than the breakeven point on most modern private arrays.

The disparity between the payback time on a community solar field and a private array comes down to how the company reimburses customers for the energy generated. While Idaho Power rebates customers using private systems the full retail cost, it would credit community solar subscribers roughly the amount the utility would save by not having to generate that power by traditional means—considerably less. Only about a third of the cost per kilowatt hour people see on their power bill covers the actual generation of the electricity. The rest is for the service—distribution, overhead, paying employees, etc.—and is not included in the credit.

“Very few” people went for the Boise plan, Delivery Planning Manager David Angell told the commissioners in February, and the project stalled.

The price has since come down. Adjusting for inflation, at $389, the payback period falls to about 18 years, Angell said. But here, Idaho Power is asking for more than double the subscribers.

Kiki Tidwell, a mid-valley energy-sector investor and an announced 2020 commissioner candidate, contended that the proposed payback period is too low.

“Nothing would make me happier than seeing a community solar project—but it has to be a win-win,” Tidwell said. “The way it’s set up now, it’s designed to fail. This is not a dynamic that will work for 3,000 people.”

The commissioners asked staff to price out potential lease options to get a better idea of the land’s value. Any rent Idaho Power needs to pay would raise the subscription fee.

“I’m not entirely sure this is a good investment for Blaine County,” Fosbury said. “But at the same time, our role is to lead where we can.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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