Secure, affordable energy is critical to Idaho’s future. One of the key players helping to ensure that future is Jackie Flowers, the head of Idaho Falls’ municipal power system, Idaho Falls Power.
Today, Idaho is a net energy importer, relying on power from other states to keep the lights on locally. Also, the Idaho power grid is heavily stressed and considerable opposition exists to expand the grid, including most prominently the Gateway West project through the Magic Valley.
Under Flowers’ leadership, Idaho Falls Power is a leader with respect to Idaho energy. “Its an honor to be part of a community that has such a legacy in energy generation. The industry is really challenging and evolving at a rapid rate. I like that challenge. We have some exciting opportunities,” she says.
Idaho Falls Power provides electricity to more than 27,000 customers in the City of Idaho Falls. In addition to providing electric service, the utility owns and maintains four hydropower plants along the Snake River, services nearly 450 miles of transmission & distribution lines, and supervises the City’s fiber optic network.
Flowers joined the utility in July 2006 as the first female manager in the utility’s then 115 year history (the city first started generating electricity in 1900). She manages a staff of 68 and a $70 million annual budget.
She is a Wyoming native and attended the South Dakota School of Mines where she obtained a degree in civil engineering. She worked for the State of South Dakota in the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. She then took of the position of Public Works Director for Sheridan, Wyoming, and joined the City of Idaho Falls in 2006. She says that “[o]ne thing that drew us to the area was the outdoor activities.”
In 2010, the Partnership for Science and Technology awarded Flowers the Energy Advocate Award for exceptional leadership and devoted service to the advancement of energy initiatives. She has established a multi-state reputation as an energy innovator.
Under Flowers’ leadership, Idaho Falls Power recently completed a smart grid demonstration project.
Electrical usage in Idaho Falls varies dramatically. At its peak, Idaho Falls requires up to 154 megawatts but averages only 85 megawatts. Those swings put the grid at risk. Right now, in cold snaps, Idaho Falls Power can exceed its rated grid capacity.
Under the smart grid project, Idaho Falls has installed smart meters that wirelessly communicate load and use information for various users. Some commercial users have installed devices that allow Idaho Falls Power to remotely reduce the load of certain users in times of need. Flowers notes that a smarter grid system gives the City the tools to reduce the load in times of stress, reducing the chance of going dark: “It creates a more flexible, responsive grid.”
Today, Idaho Falls also generates about 30% of its power through its four power plants on the Snake River. Idaho Falls Power has recently rebuilt some of the turbines and is beginning an effort to upgrade substations. There is a proposal to expand the grid infrastructure, known as the North Loop, which has been tied up in litigation, but first-term Mayor Rebecca Casper is trying to develop a consensual resolution.
Flowers’ preferred course for production of future baseload energy is to rely on nuclear power. Idaho Falls is a member (Flowers is on the board) of the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a regional group of municipal power systems that today is dependent on coal plants in New Mexico and Utah. Those plants are under increasing pressure to upgrade or shut down because of air quality and carbon issues.
UAMPS is aggressively investigating nuclear power, possibly using a small reactor technology developed by NuScale Power, a University of Oregon spinoff now majority owned by Fluor Corporation.
The proposed small modular reactor is built around a passive light water design that is designed to automatically go to safe mode in the event of interruption (avoiding the issues that plagued Fukushima after the massive Japanese earthquake). NuScale in 2013 received a Department of Energy development grant for $226 million and is working with UAMPS to investigate building its first full scale model at the Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory beginning in 2017 (presuming the Nuclear Regulatory Commission grants the required permits). It could be the world’s first small modular reactor project.
Under the program being analyzed, UAMPS could build up to 12 NuScale reactor modules, perhaps west of Idaho Falls, each generating about 50 megawatts, for a total output of nearly 600 megawatts of electricity. The build site could be on or off the Idaho National Laboratory property. Part of the attraction of the small modular reactor project is safe, dependable baseload power estimated to cost a competitive 8 cents a kilowatt.
Flowers has been on the forefront of this effort: “When you think about developing countries that don’t have access to a reliable grid, they need progression in the development of power. With CO2 and emissions concerns, they need clean baseload power. Nuclear should play a role. We want to see our rigorous regulatory standards used to scrutinize the NuScale Power design. If successful, then it can be deployed across the world. The place to test the design is at the Idaho National Laboratory here in Idaho.”