Idaho Power Co. plans to build a pilot solar panel plant so it can gain expertise in a field that could one day become a significant part of its power generating operations, an official says.

Idaho Power, a unit of IdaCorp Inc., wants to build a one-half to 1-megawatt plant using solar panels in southwest Idaho, said Mike Stokes, the company's power supply planning manager. Estimated cost is $2 million to $4 million.

"There is a kind of research and development component to this," Stokes told the Idaho Statesman ( "It's not just as simple as throwing some solar panels out there and you are done."

The state's biggest utility plans to ask for bids later this year but hasn't decided whether to put the solar panels on the ground or rooftops. Idaho Power has 492,000 residential, business and agricultural customers.

Stokes said solar power could be a good supplement to the company because it peaks in the summer when farmers are running irrigation pumps and other customers are using air conditioners.

"The shape of solar's load has a lot more value to us," he said.

The company currently generates power mostly through hydroelectric projects and coal plants.

Recently, the company included solar options in its integrated resource management plan it presented to the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

"I think if they built a plant and it's on their system, they will be more comfortable about solar," said Ken Miller, an energy analyst with the Snake River Alliance and a member of Idaho Power's planning committee. "It will become less mysterious."

The company has also approved a contract to buy solar power from Boise-based Interconnect Solar, which plans to build a solar power plant near Murphy in southwest Idaho.

Stokes said there are various options for the plant Idaho Power wants to build.

"One option would be for Idaho Power to pay someone to use their roof, and Idaho Power would own the system," he said.

Stokes said building the plant should help the company learn what solar technologies work best and which ones work best with its power grid.