Printed on: September 04, 2012

An ill wind blows

From the Idaho Statesman

Exergy Development Group did everything possible to make itself the corporate face of renewable energy in Idaho.

In 2010, CEO James Carkulis stood beside Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho Power executive Lisa Grow at the dedication of a wind farm near Hagerman, marking the occasion by signing a blade on one of the turbines.

Exergy rode into the world of corporate sponsorship with the speed of a sprint cyclist, underwriting Boise's Twilight Criterium and inaugural Exergy Tour and sponsoring Kristin Armstrong, Idaho's two-time Olympic cycling gold medalist.

But a company cannot simultaneously pursue the spotlight and avoid scrutiny.

For Exergy, times have turned, quickly and dramatically.

n Exergy suspended its plans for 116 megawatts worth of southern Idaho wind farms -- projects that had been "years and millions of dollars in the making," Carkulis said.

n The company is behind on paying its Exergy Tour bills. Exergy has pledged to make good, and on Thursday, the company paid the city of Boise more than $27,500 for security and other services for the Exergy Tour and Twilight Criterium.

n Now, Virginia-based AES Corp. has filed suit in federal court, claiming Exergy owes up to $37.9 million on turbines the company ordered only four months ago.

In a recent Reader's View, Carkulis says Exergy remains "financially strong," and is prepared to push forward on projects it considers profitable. He also blames Exergy's problems on regulatory uncertainty. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission is in the midst of settling a dispute over contracts between utilities and renewable energy producers; the outcome could decide the financial viability of Exergy and fellow producers.

Still, the signs suggest Exergy pushed too hard, spent too much and extended itself too far.

Unfortunately, and perhaps unfairly, this one company's problems can reflect poorly on an emerging wind sector. Exergy's implosion is particularly ill-timed because, while the PUC deliberates, the wind industry also is locked in a public relations showdown.

Here, as in the PUC proceeding, one of the sector's key customers is also one of its harshest skeptics. Idaho Power has taken its regulatory case to its ratepayers, saying federal rules require the company, and its 500,000 customers, to pay too much for electricity that is available only intermittently.

Idaho Power's public relations campaign says wind power is neither reliable nor cost-effective. By suspending its projects midstream -- and by falling in arrears on its bills -- Exergy's problems reinforce the Idaho Power message.

But let's remember that this is not just about Idaho Power vs. Exergy, or even just traditional utilities vs. renewable companies.

Rural communities stand to gain if companies invest in wind development. For communities in Twin Falls, Lincoln and Bingham counties, Exergy's project suspension represents lost jobs and lost opportunity.

Idaho, meanwhile, needs to shift its power portfolio toward renewables. If Idaho fails to capitalize on its wind potential, ratepayers will suffer the consequences in the long term.

Exergy's problems should not be minimized. Neither should they be used to discredit an entire sector. Idaho ratepayers -- and Idaho regulators -- must take a longer view.