Alternative Energy Opportunities Abound
by R. Hart Evans
Idaho Farm Bureau Quarterly, Spring 2009
As Idahoans continue to reel from the current economic crisis they are increasingly seeking ways to stretch the dollar. As a result, the state is experiencing a burgeoning interest in alternative and renewable energy resource development, touted as having the potential to solve many long-term problems, lower energy costs, reduce dependence on foreign oil and create jobs.
From simple solar panels on rooftops to multimillion dollar wind farms sprawling across vast stretches of land, the rush is on for alternative energy development in Idaho. And in an effort to aid in their development, there is a wealth of resources to help capitalize on the abundant opportunities available. Government and private foundation funding is being funneled into grants, loans and other financial incentives available to private, commercial, nonprofit and government developers alike. In addition, there are dozens of renewable energy professionals eager to assist the would-be energy producer.
There are state, federal and local governmental agencies able to offer technical assistance, grants, loans, easement rights protection, and tax credits as well as qualified, professional advice.
The State of Idaho, offers low-interest loan programs, property tax exemptions and alternative energy tax reductions. The Northwest Solar cooperative, an Oregon based not-for-profit service will purchase the rights to "Green Tags," or environmental attributes, from grid-connected solar or wind energy. These "Green Tags," also referred to as "Blue Sky" in other states, are purchased from individual private sellers and then re-sold wholesale, in an effort (to) promote alternative energy development and as a means for interested individuals to pay a fixed premium added to each kilowatt hour over and above the regular energy costs to help offset environmental issues.
At the federal government level there are renewable energy bonds that offer federal loans to the public sector to help finance renewable energy projects./ There are residential renewable energy tax credits where taxpayers may claim a credit for qualified expenditures for a system that serves residential dwellings locate within the Unite States and utilized as a residence by the taxpayer. And, most, if not all these programs are staffed with full-time professionals available to assist in efforts to develop and produce alternative energy.
In the private sector, there are scores of renewable energy businesses in Idaho providing services in renewable energy development, financing, manufacturing, retail sales, consulting services, system design, system installation and system maintenance. The list goes on and on. Some companies, for a nominal fee, will even provide a grant writer to complete the application process for alternative energy projects grant applications.
However, even as the president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Greg? Stallman recently proclaimed the #### of renewable energy resources ### stating that "farmers should expect ###mp up our efforts to provide clean ####en energy to fuel the country," in-#####ing in renewable or "Green" ener-#### an endeavor that is fraught with difficulties not to be taken lightly.
An average sized residential system costs about $15,000 to $20,000 and large scale projects in the hundreds of megawatts (a megawatt or 1,000 kilowatts is said to be able to power about 750 to 1,000 homes) will set developers back hundreds of millions of dollars and many months if not years to complete.
And even though there is an increase in interest to go Green, most residential energy consumers can't afford the initial cost. Mike Gallup, spokesman for Boise-based Renewable Energy Resources which specializes in developing alternative energy for corporate and residential entities, said that current investment costs are still too expensive for the average person. There does seem to be a more interests and awareness, but until stimulus money filters down through the masses, "he said, "most people are concerned with the housing market situation and if they would be able to pay back the loans for the systems."
In addition, the average renewable energy units provide only a fraction of a household's overall energy needs and will not be able to provide any added value income from "net metering," where excess electricity produced by renewable energy turbines spin the electricity meter backwards, effectively banking electricity until it is needed by the customer to provide customers with full retail value for all the electricity produced. "To realize net metering," said Gallup, "you need to have about 5- to 10-Kw which can run as much as $40,000 which is out of most people's range."
Idaho does not have statewide net-metering rules. However, each of the state's three investor-owned utilities -- Avista Utilities, Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power -- has developed a net-metering tariff that has been approved by the Idaho Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
For the commercial, large-scale development, the obstacles to install green systems is said by some to be extreme. The 185-turbine China Mountain project in Twin Falls County, for example, would produce more than 400 megawatts on some 30,000 acres of public land and has been criticized as environmentally unsound. Some fish and wildlife experts claim that the footprint of the project will impact prime habitat for sage grouse, mule deer antelope and many other sagebrush dependent species. One Idaho Department of Fish and Game supervisor was actually recently demoted for stating these concerns in an open letter published in the Twin Falls Times-News.
There is also the NIMBY effect. This "not in my back yard" argument, recently prompted a request for a judicial review over the approval of a 150-turbine wind farm located near Wolverine Canyon, a popular recreation area southeast of Idaho Falls. The project was said to have "ruined the view" from a recreational cabin.
But, perhaps the most important oft-repeated advice for the would-be residential producer is that "the first thing you should consider is to make sure the home is energy efficient. " Gallup said. "If not, then installing renewable energy technologies won't do much good." But that's another story.
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