Solar may play growing role in Avista's energy mix, executive says

While natural gas and hydro power are Avista Utilities' primary energy producers, with coal a distant third, it's likely that solar will play an increasing role.

When asked about solar possibilities during Monday's Chamber of Medford/Jackson County Forum at the Rogue Valley Country Club, Avista Vice President Jason Thackston suggested the region had plenty of solar energy potential.

"Solar is like wind, becoming more and more efficient and lower in cost," Thackston said. "Sometimes people think the Pacific Northwest isn't a good candidate for solar generation, but I've heard many comparisons to Germany, which has a similar profile in terms of solar capacity. Germany has incorporated solar into their grid quite well.

"I think we will continue to look at it. We have small investments in large-scale generation, but we want to see how it plays out before we incorporate it into our generation."

Avista provides natural gas to Southern Oregon and electricity to parts of Washington and Idaho.

Thackston said hydro power remains a key financial component in producing electricity, even with greater use of wind power and declining use of coal.

"That means for us and the region that hydroelectric generation is more important now than it was before," Thackston said. "We've always relied on hydro generation for low rates and that has helped with the economy in the Pacific Northwest.

"Now when the wind picks up, we need to be able to shut down generation somewhere else and when it dies down we need to pick up generation somewhere else, and that's what hydro generation does for us — not just us, but the whole region."

Asked if the Energy Department will take a position on the United States becoming a natural gas exporter, Thackston said it will depend on how the Obama administration views shale exploration in general.

"(The administration) has concerns about the use of water chemicals used in fracturing and fracking the wells," he said.

"I think that needs to be resolved before we go forward with any export strategy. There are several gasification facilities — import terminals — that were being developed a few years ago before we realized (the size of) our supply ... ."

When asked how electrical and natural gas delivery would hold up during a major earthquake, Thackston said electrical distribution would potentially fare better.

"Pipelines would have a little more to be concerned about than the electric grid," he said. "There are many safety measures in place on the gas side. It's not so much an issue of safety as in the reliability side."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.


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