Idaho Power: Looking Back, Moving Forward

By Brad Bowlin

Idaho Power is celebrating its centennial this year, and looking back over the company’s first 100 years in business, two things stand out: How much has changed, and how much has remained the same.

Idaho Power started when five power companies merged in 1916. The companies’ nine existing hydroelectric plants had a total capacity of 20 MW; now we have 17 with a total of 1,709 MW, and hydro remains the backbone of our system. Although we have added 1,880 MW of thermal capacity over the years to keep up with customer demand, hydro is still the largest contributor to our fuel mix, accounting for more than 47% of the energy we generate.

Our key hydro resource, the three-powerhouse 1,167-MW Hells Canyon Complex on the Snake River, gives us the flexibility to respond to changes in customer demand and also to integrate 21st century energy sources like wind and solar into our system.

That strong base of generation resources and 100 years of experience in delivering electricity puts Idaho Power in position to meet the ongoing challenge of serving more than a million people spread across 24,000 square miles.

Early years

Idaho Power was formed in 1916, and the company spent the next 15 years investing in projects to boost distribution and hydro generating capacity. This involved upgrading existing facilities and building four new facilities, from American Falls in the east to Swan Falls in the west.

The company started its rural electrification program to bring power to even the most remote customers and to make Idaho Power well-known across its service area. As the company’s electric generating capacity grew, Idaho Power demonstrated all the benefits of electricity by selling modern electric appliances – such as clothes washers, waffle irons and stoves – directly to customers.

Beginning in 1920, the company applied with the Federal Power Commission (FPC) to develop several new hydroelectric plants at Twin Falls, Upper Salmon Falls, Thousand Springs and American Falls. To connect these generating facilities with customers, Idaho Power built hundreds of miles of transmission lines. Mobile crews visited farms and ranches and set pole after pole in places far from the company’s headquarters in Boise. By the late 1920s, Idaho Power had 10,000 rural customers and had built more than 1,100 miles of rural transmission lines.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression of the 1930s took Idaho Power and its customers on a bumpy ride. During this time, Idaho Power focused on balancing the needs of customers, employees and shareholders through dramatic changes.

During the Depression, the company faced a problem. How could it keep growing to meet electricity demand, which continued to increase in spite of hard times? New advertising recognized customers’ financial challenges and marketed electric living as “cheap.” The sales pitch was correct; Idaho Power cut rates 36 times before 1936.

The company planned to build new hydro plants and install better transmission lines for more reliable service, but the economic conditions and legal changes of the 1930s stalled much of the work. There were positive changes during this period as well, including safety improvements and the move to an eight-hour work day, and Idaho Power pledged that it would be run by “the same local people, representing the territory served” and provide “the greatest possible service at the lowest possible cost, consistent with good service.”

Post-war challenges

World War II ended the tough economic times but left many people mourning loved ones, and people bonded over the shared sacrifice of the war. Idaho Power offered strong support to its many employees who served overseas. Idaho Power contributed to World War II efforts in other ways as well. The company helped local industries secure war production contracts and held scrap metal drives to supply metal for ammunition and guns. It also strung long transmission lines to remote locations to connect various war industries to power.

When the fighting ended, the company was well-positioned to lead and support Idaho’s post-war economic growth. The improving economy also added to power demand, as people used more electricity and bought more appliances. By the end of the 1940s, Idaho Power’s customer base had roughly doubled to 104,000. The company had also added four new generating plants along the Snake River. The Bliss, Upper and Lower Malad, and Lower Salmon Falls Dam projects are still in operation.

Fish conservation and recreation

Concern over the plight of fish that migrate between rivers and the ocean in the Pacific Northwest and a rise in Americans’ love of outdoor recreation took root in the 1950s. The agreement between Idaho Power and FPC that allowed construction of the Hells Canyon Complex to begin in 1955 reflected and strengthened these growing values.

Idaho Power’s efforts to meet the requirement of “appropriate measures for wildlife conservation” resulted in a decades-long role as a leader in fish research and conservation. The company tested methods of moving fish around its dams and hydro facilities and explored other ways, including a hatchery program, to support salmon and steelhead populations. The company also built boat ramps, parks, picnic areas and shorelines for public recreational use. Late in the decade, Idaho Power hired its first wildlife biologist. The company’s Environmental Department would grow to more than 200 employees before the end of the century.

These issues remain at the forefront of Idaho Power’s work on the Snake River today as we work toward securing a new long-term Federal Energy Regulatory Commission operating license for our Hells Canyon facilities.

1950s bring changes

Strategic leadership decisions in the 1930s and 1940s positioned Idaho Power to meet the needs of the booming 1950s. More of the company’s income started to come from commercial customers. The phosphate and manufactured food industries continued to grow, and the agricultural sector began using electric pumps to access groundwater. These changes increased the need for generating capacity.

Women’s experiences at Idaho Power were typical for the 1950s. The professional openings provided by World War II, when men were overseas, seemed to vanish in the 1950s. The country turned inward in response to the outside threat of communism, and many women returned to the role of homemaker. It felt safe to focus on the home and on the worth of private enterprise. The wholesome ideals embodied by the Gold Medallion home – which denoted a home with an electric clothes washer and dryer, waste disposal, refrigerator and heating – point to the revival of domestic values during this “Leave it to Beaver” era. However, it was only a matter of time before women would play a major role in the professional world at Idaho Power.

One era ends, another begins

The 1960s began with Idaho Power adding the last two dams and hydro plants it would build on the Snake River – Oxbow and Hells Canyon. Construction on Hells Canyon was a 24-hour-a-day effort. Helicopters lifted preassembled tower sections to place them into position, while 750 men worked on the ground to frame the dam, pour concrete and build the power plant. Hells Canyon went into full production in 1968, marking the end of Idaho Power’s era of construction in Hells Canyon and on the Snake River.

By 1970, Idaho Power was fully dependent on hydroelectric power. The challenges of the 1970s changed Idaho Power’s future. Growing environmental awareness, changing gender roles, drought, and an international energy crisis forced Idaho Power to revisit its corporate identity. In response to some of these hardships, Idaho Power added new generation sources to its portfolio. For example, the coal-fired Jim Bridger Plant in Rock Springs, Wyo., increased Idaho Power’s ability to produce electricity by 25% when it was completed in 1974.

The company finished the decade as a leader in environmental research and an advocate of conserving energy. The happy-go-lucky sales pitches that encouraged more electricity use were gone. Instead, the company used full-page newspaper ads to explain to its customers the new demands Idaho Power was facing. This decade was a defining moment in Idaho Power’s 100-year history.

Brownlee Dam on the Snake River is part of the Hells Canyon Complex and impounds water for a hydroelectric powerhouse with a capacity of 585 MW.
Brownlee Dam on the Snake River is part of the Hells Canyon Complex and impounds water for a hydroelectric powerhouse with a capacity of 585 MW.

A shifting landscape

The 1980s were a decade of change for Idaho Power and the U.S. Major corporate and regulatory shifts forced Idaho Power to focus on restoring the balance that defined its early years. Growth was the marker of success in its first 50 years, but success took on new meaning in the late 20th century.

The Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act passed by Congress in 1978 began to have an impact in the 1980s. The company responded to the law by adding new (non-hydro) generation sources and analyzing possible alternative energy sources in its service area, such as solar. The company also allocated resources to address emissions from the three coal-fired plants that it co-owned.

Drought and a recession made matters worse. Idaho Power kept its commitment to hydroelectric power by updating and expanding existing facilities – a process that continues today.

The utility also added energy efficiency marketing to its energy conservation efforts. Idaho Power believed wise energy use by customers would save money and remove the need to build new projects. The company continues to have a robust energy efficiency department, with programs available to help residential, commercial and industrial customers use energy more wisely.

The 1990s and early 2000s brought less visible changes as the company dealt with the changing regulatory landscape and a growing population. The 1990s was also a decade of professional growth for women at Idaho Power. Women began taking positions as accountants, supervisors, electrical engineers and members of Idaho Power’s Board of Directors.

Planning for the future

Idaho Power begins its second century with great opportunities. The company has the resources to deliver electricity to homes and businesses throughout its service area for the next decade, and it’s already planning for 2025 and beyond. One thing that has remained constant is the company’s commitment to keeping prices low; the energy cost per kilowatt-hour is virtually the same now as it was in the company’s early years.

Two major areas of focus are the Boardman to Hemingway 500-kV transmission project that will move energy to and from the Pacific Northwest, and obtaining a new federal license for the Hells Canyon Complex – the three dams and hydro plants at the heart of Idaho Power’s hydroelectric system.

Challenges lie ahead, and all will require careful planning, including:

  • Additional restrictions on the use of fossil fuels;
  • The impact of climate change on water supply; and
  • The need to integrate power from a wide range of independent producers.

The increasing role of renewable energy, electric cars, distributed generation and electricity storage technology all promise to change the way we do business. Our challenge in the next century will be to help customers take advantage of these advances while we focus on keeping their energy clean, reliable and affordable.

Looking back at our history not only shows how far we have come, it provides the confidence that sound leadership and the dedication of our 2,000-plus employees will be up to the challenges of Idaho Power’s next century.

Brad Bowlin is a communication specialist with Idaho Power.

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