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New West Daily Roundup for Dec. 8, 2016

Today in New West news: proposed net-metering rule causes solar spike in Utah, racial slur drawn on Idaho Black History Museum, a twist in the Idaho wild salmon conversation, and Wyoming’s Medicine Bow Technologies.

Earlier this year, we reported Rocky Mountain Power had expressed interest in changing their net-metering rule to single out customers who generate power through solar panels, driving up costs for solar households. RMP says the move reflects their belief that solar customers are in a wholly different category and should be charged as such. Solar advocates decry the proposed changes as a means to throttle the industry. We also reported RMP would seek to implement the changes before December 10—grandfathering in old customers before the new rates go into effect.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, concern over RMP’s decision to make solar more expensive, on the whole, has prompted a spike in solar applications across the state:

The state Public Service Commission won’t weigh the company’s requested rate change until next year. But this week, it will decide the fate of the utility’s proposed first step, which would lay the groundwork to grandfather existing residential solar customers into current rates and assign different rates to new customers.

Under the proposal, customers who submit net-metering applications after Dec. 9 would be assigned to a new, separate rate schedule for households with rooftop solar. They would initially pay prices identical to Rocky Mountain Power’s current rates, but in the future their bills could change if the utility’s main rate-change proposal is approved.

Rocky Mountain Power has said its recalibration is designed to ensure solar users pay their fair share to access the power grid. An average residential solar customer is billed about $55 a month under the current rate; the utility says its changes — which include a higher monthly service charge and a new monthly “demand charge” — would take that up to $74.

(To calculate how the proposal affects individual solar bills, visit

Utah’s solar industry opposes the utility’s plans, and is hoping the commission will halt this first step. Solar advocates say that the possibility that Utahns who sign up for residential solar after Dec. 9 could one day face higher rates will put a damper on the now-booming industry.

Utility spokesman Paul Murphy says the company has received more than 2,000 residential solar applications in the month since it announced its proposals, after averaging 1,300 applications a month during the past six months.

Ryan Evans, president of the Utah Solar Energy Association, said some of those people may be opting — at the suggestion of the solar companies themselves — to submit net-metering applications to “get in line” before Friday.

If the commission doesn’t weigh in by the close of business Friday — 30 days after Rocky Mountain Power filed the proposal — then the request to create a new rate schedule and assign customers to it will automatically take effect. Under state law, the commission doesn’t have to weigh in on this filing since it doesn’t propose to change the rates at which electricity is sold.

But the commission has the legal authority to modify the utility’s request — changing the date at which it draws the line, for example — or to delay the decision or even reject it entirely.

Industry reps (including USEA’s Evans) acknowledged the spike in applications might not result in widespread installations, since it takes, on average, a month to process and approve a net-metering application. Evans also expressed hope the Commission would reject RMP’s proposed changes, but acknowledged that, come Monday, Utah’s solar industry could be on the retreat.

Over in Idaho, according to the Idaho Statesman, an unknown vandal has drawn a racial slur in snow on the roof of a storage shed at Boise’s Idaho Black History Museum. Instead of cleaning up the slur, board president and director Phillip Thompson shared the photo on Facebook, calling it “Apropos of the current racial climate.” From the Statesman:

Thompson said he left the slur carved into the inch of snow on the shed’s roof.

“Me cleaning it up, wiping it up, serves no purpose,” he said. “You can’t run from it, hide from it and be fearful.”

He said when his mother, state Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, was a child growing up in Boise, the family had a cross burned on their yard. His grandmother left the cross there.

Thompson said he thinks the act is “a microcosm of what we’re going through as a country,” but not necessarily a representation of Boise, which he calls “the greatest place on the planet.”

“It’s not indicative of Boise. It’s indicative of some (expletive) walking by who decided to share his opinion,” Thompson said.

Thompson told the Statesman the last time the museum was vandalized was about 15 years ago, when someone carved a swastika into a door. Besides chronicling Idaho’s black history, the museum also hosts community events.

Keeping with Idaho, we’ve been following developments in the ongoing debate over wild salmon and dams in the Columbia watershed. After a federal judge ruled that the Corps and Bonneville Power Administration had not considered wild salmon recovery in assessing dam management along the Snake River, conservationists hailed the decision as a path toward breaching the dams—a proposal debated for decades, although the process itself will be fraught with difficulties, since the dams provide both electricity and water for various industries in the watershed.

To wit, according to the Idaho Statesman, one industry group is looking to quash the dam breach movement, which could effectively consign Idaho’s wild salmon to extinction:

More than 2,000 people have attended meetings where they’ve shared what they think should be the scope of an environmental review ordered in May by U.S. Judge Michael Simon. Despite many improvements, the judge and scientists say more needs to be done to ensure future sustainable populations of wild salmon.

But Darryll Olsen, board representative for the Columbia-Snake River Irrigators Association, doesn’t want to have that conversation or the environmental review. He and his group have asked the Trump transition team either to intervene directly or to convene the Endangered Species Committee, a little-used panel that he says could decide that the federal agencies status quo plan is enough.

The committee is commonly known as the God Squad, because it can play God and allow an endangered species to go extinct. The committee and its exemption process was added to the Endangered Species Act in 1978.

Federal agencies under the act must ensure that its actions won’t cause species to go extinct. To grant an exemption, the God Squad must find there are no reasonable and prudent alternatives; must determine that the benefits of the exemption outweigh alternatives; and that the agencies had not already made an irreversible commitment of resources.

This has proved to be a high bar. In 1992, the Bureau of Land Management took timber sales it planned in Oregon old-growth forest to the God Squad for a ruling because protections for the spotted owl had stopped the sales.

The panel exempted 13 of 44 timber sales, but told the BLM it first had to develop a scientifically sound plan for protecting the owl. The agency was back to square one.

Olsen derided the “biased court decision” that could lead to an environmental review by the Corps and BPA and took shots at the “salmon-recovery industry” for their efforts. Farmers who depend on water pumped from dams like Ice Harbor say they fear it would cost too much to come up with an alternate water source; others fear the government will simply buy them out. It’s worth noting: wild salmon advocates say they wholly support area farmers pumping water from the Snake—so long as its free-flowing.

Finally, over in Wyoming, Medicine Bow Technologies CEO Luke Schneider, speaking to the Wyoming Business Report, commented on his company’s future in the tech industry, stressing his belief in the importance of human interaction when it comes to burgeoning tech possibilities:

With greater advances in technology come greater risks to cyber security, which is where Medicine Bow Technologies steps in, Schneider said.

Celebrating 10 years in business in November, the company was founded in 2006 by Ivinson Memorial Hospital to attract a strong IT network to the medical field, Schneider said.

“Getting good IT people to come to work at a hospital is really hard,” he said.

While the company was founded with the idea of providing technological solutions to health care-specific problems, he said cyber security became its primary focus. Nowadays, he said Medicine Bow Technologies is a full-service IT company serving governments, education departments and organizations.

“The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has recently put cyber security and cyber attacks as the number one threat to America,” [Director of Sales Operations Laura] Baker said. “And, identity theft in hospitals is much more attractive to hackers.”

She said hackers could sell a credit card number for about 50 cents, but a full set of medical records could fetch more than $100.

“People hear that, and they think ‘oh, that’s not going to happen to me’ because they’re in Wyoming,” she said. “But, that’s not the case. We know of companies in Laramie that have been hit, which are tiny and only have one computer.”

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