Friday, May 11, 2007

Valley gets glimpse of energy alternatives

Snake River Alliance hosts renewable energy conference

Express Staff Writer

Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance, gives an impassioned plea for communities to demand support for renewable energy resources from elected officials. Photo by David N. Seelig

Regardless of your stance on global warming, it would be difficult to deny the existence of a growing interest in renewable energy.

This was made evident by the large turnout for the conference on Idaho's energy future presented by the Snake River Alliance on Thursday, May 10, at Rico's restaurant in Ketchum. Snake River Alliance is a nonprofit organization that monitors nuclear research and the energy industry in Idaho.

More than 50 residents and local business people were in attendance to listen to experts in the fields of geothermal, wind, biofuel and wind energy.

Deb Bohrer, president of Snake River Alliance's board, explained that this was to be the first of a number of panels aimed at educating communities about available solutions in alternative energy and methods for becoming a leader in this campaign.

"We have the chance to be progressive, not reactive," Bohrer said. "And we can protect what we love most about this state, which is our environment."

The moderator of the meeting, Ben Sinnamon, presented a theme that would be echoed throughout the morning by the four panelists he introduced.

The energy situation will change drastically in 20 years, Sinnamon said, catalyzed by the scarcity of oil and its impact on both national security and the environment.

Doug Glaspey, chief operating officer of Boise-based U.S. Geothermal, explained that his company is already working to move away from this dependence on oil by providing electricity produced by extremely hot water coming up from well below the surface of the Earth.

Glaspey's company is developing the Raft River Geothermal Project, located south of Burley on a former U.S. Department of Energy geothermal demonstration project, which they hope will soon be able to power a city, similar to the plants that provide the majority of electricity for Reno, Nev.

Despite the high efficiency of geothermal power and Idaho's high potential for this alternative energy source, there are still a number of roadblocks, Glaspey said.

He noted that Idaho doesn't have Renewables Portfolio Standards, a voluntary program in which the state mandates a certain percentage amount of its total power that must come from renewable energy sources. Under such a program, incentives are created for companies to provide or purchase renewable energy through financially punitive measures for noncompliance.

Wind energy, too, is clean, secure and affordable, said Mike Heckler.

Heckler, the marketing and development director of Windland Inc., said that while developing wind energy is a capital intensive operation with the majority of the expense coming up front, that cost would be offset by the savings in the cost of gasoline required for annual transportation.

He countered the argument of opponents claiming wind would be an unreliable source with the obvious observation that the wind is always blowing somewhere, but we do have to make an effort for geographic diversity in how our power is distributed.

However, he acknowledged that it would take changes in policy to switch away from U.S. dependence on fossil fuels, as market forces aren't strong enough on their own.

"Right now there's no charge for carbon flatulence," he said. "Carbon polluters (should) have to pay."

The third alternative presented was deriving energy from biofuels, such as methane, which can be produced from waste products.

Wendy Pabich, president and founder of Earth Synergy Inc., said waste streams are presently on a linear path, as opposed to reusing them to harvest their potential energy.

She gave an example of growing algae with wastewater at a treatment facility. This method, she said, utilizes carbon dioxide already present in the atmosphere and doesn't add to the current abundance.

By using this already existing resource, small communities are able to create sustainable and stable economies, Pabich said.

As were the speakers before him, Morgan Brown, president of Sun Valley Solar, was visibly passionate about making alternative energy a viable reality.

He presented a number of examples of local homeowners who have already taken steps in that direction, using a diversity of solar panels to greatly cut down on their own carbon emissions, including his own house and that of Hailey resident Chris Pilaro.

"I'm pro-nuclear," Brown said. "With one caveat: I want the reactor 93 million miles away."

He explained how solar power is not restricted to installing panels to provide electricity to a house. The design of a house, specifically the placement of windows, can greatly affect energy consumption, as can solar devices to heat water.

Brown emphasized the oft-repeated message that it's up to the public to demand support for renewable energy from elected officials.

While all of the speakers told how their methods are cost-efficient in the long run, they also acknowledged the hurdle of getting decision-makers to look past the initial expense.

"Idaho is at an energy crossroads," said Jeremy Maxand, executive director of the Snake River Alliance.

Maxand said SRA's goal is to provide central leadership between businesses, agricultural groups and government officials as they help move toward renewable energy.

"If the government is spending billions of dollars on nuclear energy, they can definitely afford to invest in these alternatives," Maxand said.

A vocal public agreed, including Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson, who asked for some kind of demonstration project that would "stand up in the face of elected officials."

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