Company, Idaho regulators at odds over battery storage plan

An Idaho-based energy development company is asking federal authorities to declare state regulators in violation of a law intended to promote alternative energy in a case that could have far-reaching ramifications for emerging battery-storage technologies.

Franklin Energy is seeking to build a $200 million lithium-ion battery storage facility in Twin Falls County. It contends the project, under federal law, qualifies for a 20-year contract with Idaho Power, which has more than 500,000 customers in southern Idaho and eastern Oregon.

But Idaho regulators twice rejected the company’s request, saying the project is allowed only a two-year contract because the batteries would be charged with solar power.

Franklin Energy says the shorter contract doesn’t offer the stability needed to make the proposed project — which includes four 25 megawatt battery storage facilities — financially viable. The company took its case to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month after the Idaho Public Utilities Commission sided with the state-regulated Idaho Power Co.

Peter Richardson, an attorney with Franklin Energy Storage Projects, said the source of the renewable power shouldn’t matter because battery projects could include wind, hydro or some other renewable energy form.

“There’s a fundamental difference between what a battery project can do and what a stand-alone wind project or solar project can do,” he said.

A battery can store energy until it’s needed, unlike solar, wind or hydro that generate energy that must be used as it’s produced. That, Richardson said, plus advances in technology have brought renewable-energy battery storage to the edge of being financially competitive on a commercial scale. That means similar projects could start popping up in other states.

“Battery storage is going to open a whole new chapter in the utility industry,” Richardson said.

The disagreement involves the Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act, or PURPA. Created in 1978, it’s intended to promote alternative resources. It requires power companies to buy electricity at a state commission-approved rate from qualifying small power-production facilities.

Franklin Energy argues Idaho’s Public Utilities Commission isn’t abiding by that law. It also contends that, rather than protecting customers from Idaho Power’s leverage as a state-regulated monopoly, the commission is protecting the utility at customers’ expense.

Idaho Power contests that claim and has long…

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