Friday, January 4, 2008

Idaho growth poses energy opportunities for lawmakers

In the 12 months since July 1, 2006, the Census Bureau estimates that 35,524 newcomers moved to Idaho, a population growth rate of 2.4 percent and a pace that keeps the state the nation's fourth fastest growing.

Policymakers should remember the migration is not of families in search of factory-town jobs in smokestack industries.

The lure largely is because of the state's fabled natural wonders and largely unspoiled environment, which a host of private and government guardians have wisely and determinedly protected.

Yet, growth also forces new demands on Idaho's infrastructure—its schools, roads, health care, police and fire services and criminal justice system—and especially on water and electricity supplies.

As never before, state legislators must face problems posed by this steady increase in population to a total of 1,463,878, and recognize, too, opportunities for abandoning old ways and turning to innovation and technological frontiers.

At the grassroots level, Idahoans are restless and concerned about the state's obsolete policies on power generation. A Twin Falls activist has launched a petition drive to require a statewide vote on any proposed new power-generating plant. Embodied in this petition is a fear that politicians are indifferent to the environmental risks of nuclear and coal power.

Rather than wait for this signature-collection project to play out, state lawmakers must shed any indifference and seize the moment by crafting policies that serve future power needs while continuing the legacy of preserving Idaho's magical grandeur and pure air.

A law requiring a state authority to approve any new power plant is an absolute must. "Local control" is a romantic, obsolete concept these days. Cities and counties look to the state for so many services. The Idaho State Police crime lab, for example, is far better equipped to solve complicated crimes than a small police department with no such facilities.

Small counties that several large power firms are scouting for nuclear-plant sites to produce and export electricity to other states can't conceivably provide the technical, scientific or financial know-how required for siting a nuclear plant. In addition, the impact of new power plants on water and air quality extend far beyond the county line.

Plainly, alternative power sources also are greatly preferred. Idaho Power, the state's largest electrical company, has awakened to the financial and environmental potential of wind power and geothermal. Any rate requests that would advance cleaner energy would prove cheaper in the long run to consumers.

Decisions on energy made in 2008 could well foretell the permanent character of Idaho.

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