Writings and observations

idaho RANDY

Attorney Conley Ward, 66, who died last week at Kuna, has been for several decades an important but quietly influential figure in Idaho’s energy and infrastructure world. He chaired of the state Democratic Party from 1988-91, and served as a member of the Public Utilities Commission from 1977 to 1986. He won respect in all these areas.

Before any of that, before more than a few Idahoans knew his name, an important piece of work he did with a small group of activists changed the state’s future. How important: Idaho would be poorer and your electric power bills vastly higher than if he had no acted when he did.

In the mid-70s an irrigation-led bump in power demand persuaded planners at Idaho Power Company they needed access to a lot more juice. This was, remember, barely two decades after its capacity had exploded with the building of the Hells Canyon dams, but the worry was considerable: What if Idaho ran out of available electric power?

In 1974 Idaho Power applied with the Public Utilities Commission to build a massive coal-fired power plant to be called Pioneer, about 25 miles east of Boise. Boise was much smaller then, but its air quality was worse. When word got out about Pioneer, a handful of critics (such as attorney Jeff Fereday and newspaper editorialist Ken Robison) blasted the idea. At first, though, Pioneer looked unstoppable. Its advocates far outnumbered critics, and Idaho Power then rarely lost Idaho political battles.

Around then, PUC Commissioner Robert Lenaghan hired Ward, a young attorney and a native of Owyhee County, and assigned him to the Pioneer proposal and its implications. Ward was not the only person looking into Pionerr, but he was the man on the inside, and the PUC’s questioning of the project rapidly grew sharper. The original $400 million cost estimate for Pioneer expanded, under pressure, to $600, and then – under heated inquiry from Lenaghan – to $828 million. Quoted in an essay by environmentalist Pat Ford, Ward recalled, “at that time the net value of their entire system [Hells Canyon dams included] was $648 million. And Pioneer was only half their 10-year construction program. By 1986 they planned to spend $1.6 billion on a new plant.”

He concluded that the cheap hydropower would be swamped by coal power that would cost six or seven times as much, and could double, or triple, electric power rates. Idaho would go from being one of the least expensive power states to among the most expensive.

The Pioneer fight was ferocious, but in the end the case against became widely accepted publicly, if not in all political and corporate offices. Ward wrote the PUC order rejecting Pioneer. His later appointment to the PUC was hotly debated, and was approved by the Senate in a heated 18-17 vote.

Now suppose Pioneer had cruised ahead. Leave aside the pollution and environmental issues (not that those were insignificant). Look at the economics. Idaho Power’s load growth in coming years was far smaller than it projected in the mid-70s, and it would have been stuck with an immensely costly white elephant. (For a model of this, look up the Washington and Oregon experience with the Washington Public Power Supply System nuclear power plant money pit in that same period.) Idaho Power rates would have risen massively. As important, Idaho Power, to this day locally-owned, an unusual thing in itself and of great value to Idaho, almost certainly would long since have been bought out, probably leading to further weakened local service.

Conley Ward – and the others he worked with – left an impressive legacy for their home state. How many of today’s leaders will be able to say as much a generation from now?

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