Could Idaho be the Nation’s Clean Energy Leader?

Report from the Business Council for Sustainable Energy, 2020 (based on 2019 data).

Most people assume California or Hawaii have the cleanest electric grids. It turns out that Idaho is #1 for Clean Energy, based on 2019 data published in a report by the Business Council for Sustainable Energy.

Yep, you read that right — Idaho has the cleanest electric grid in the United States, surpassing Vermont in 2019. This first-place position is further secured by a 20-year solar power purchase agreement that Idaho Power, Idaho’s largest utility, secured in 2019 for 120 MW of power at 2.2 cents per kWh.

But what does the “cleanest grid” actually mean? It means that within the U.S., Idaho has the lowest emissions intensity — or the lowest percent of energy coming from coal or gas-fired power plants. The state of Idaho generates more than three-fourths of in-state electricity from “clean” sources — primarily hydroelectric wind, and solar.

This already very clean grid has enabled the state’s utilities to set achievable emissions goals. Idaho Power, has set the ambitious goal of 100% clean energy by 2045. Many smaller utilities and municipalities across the state are targeting 100% clean energy by 2035. Why do carbon emissions goals matter to utilities like Idaho Power? A few decades of research show that climate change negatively impacts future profits. Less snowpack means less water in reservoirs in the late spring, which means less power generation from hydroelectric power plants during peak demand times — when we need to power summer air conditioning and agricultural irrigation.

But what would happen to our clean power status if some of the dams went away? For decades, salmon advocates such as the Nez Perce Tribe, Idaho Conservation League and others, have been pushing for dam removal to support the restoration of salmon populations on the Snake and Salmon rivers. Representative Mike Simpson just announced a $33 billion proposal to remove four dams on the lower Snake River, representing around 1,000 MW of power (on average) managed by the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA). While power from the dams on the lower Snake only accounts for 16% of Idaho’s power supply, there will be a huge net loss for the region overall. This begs the question: “What energy source will replace those dams? Where will this new clean energy come from?”

How about Idaho? Idaho is well poised to be a net exporter of clean and renewable energy.

Idaho is rich in wind and sun. With affordable, treeless land and ample desert winds, Idaho is a prime location for solar and wind. And, with utility-scale solar at 2.2 cents per kWh and wind at less than 2 cents per kWh, these renewable sources of energy are now less expensive than hydropower rates of 3.5 cents per kWh from BPA. The good news on solar is that it is most productive when we use the most energy (during the hot summer months). The catch is that these power sources are intermittent. The sun doesn’t shine at night and the wind doesn’t blow all the time, rendering affordable, recyclable batteries essential for a transition to clean energy. We will need lots of batteries — big, affordable ones. Idaho may have all the right ingredients to supply batteries too.

Idaho happens to be rich in minerals, particularly antimony — a critical mineral resource for battery technology. Stibnite, Idaho has one of the largest deposits of antimony in the world and the only known deposit in North America. Midas Gold is currently in the permitting process to mine both gold and antimony at the Stibnite site, a previously mined site that has a history of environmental contamination. The mining company has committed to restoration and clean-up, promising to leave the site better than they found it.

MIT professor Dr. Saddoway believes antimony is key to solving the renewable energy problem. He has been developing a utility-scale battery that relies on antimony. His solution would make the most affordable battery yet to be commercially available — enabling a full transition to wind and solar. The good news about these types of batteries is that they don’t “die” like a car battery. Their life-span is much longer and at the end of their useful life, all materials can be reused in other batteries or other applications.

However, the Nez Perce Tribe and local environmental groups doubt this can or will be accomplished. Environmental advocates are concerned about the risk to downstream fish habitat on the Salmon River, further harming fish populations. They have good reasons. Mining has a long history of causing serious environmental damage, particularly at the Stibnite mine site. The Salmon River is a Wild and Scenic River and the longest free-flowing river in the Northwest — un-tempered access to the Salmon River is critical for migrating salmon. This clean, free-flowing river is important not just for environmental reasons, but also for the Tribes who have historic rights to harvest salmon as central to their way of life. Salmon are an important part of our northwest ecosystem and economy. If the only North American deposit of antimony is in Stibnite, how might this valuable resource be brought into development in a way that preserves and protects our longest free-flowing Pacific Northwest salmon-run river?

Luckily, Idaho is also rich in innovation, particularly in the renewable and battery industry. Idaho is stepping into the cleantech spotlight with startups like Joule Case, Retrolux, Clenera, Inovus Solar (acquired by Solar One), Solar Roadways, Kore Power, and Inergy. Idaho also leads with some of the nation’s top energy research institutions, Idaho National Laboratory (INL), leading research and development in batteries, solar, and grid modernization.

Idaho is rich with smart, talented people working on the world’s biggest energy problems. The Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES), a collaboration between INL, Boise State University, University of Idaho, and Idaho State University, hosts over 8,000 researchers working to solve the greatest energy challenges. Also, Idaho hosts two large energy engineering firms, Power Engineers and McMillan-Jacobs, who are both leading in the energy innovation space. Additionally, Idaho is host to more than a dozen B Corp companies — all of which focus on using business as a force for good.

The Idaho Chapter of the CleanTech Alliance formed in 2020 to support these innovators and push for smart economic policy that will create jobs in cleantech industries. Idaho Chapter Chair, Leif Elgethun says “Cleantech makes sense in Idaho. We have all the ingredients to build a thriving clean energy industry that will create tens of thousands of living-wage jobs, protect our low cost of energy, and ensure our water, air, and land are clean for future generations.” Elgethun and other Idaho CTA members are working with local leaders to position Idaho for investment in cleantech startups, leading to long-term jobs and economic resilience for Idaho.

Might there be a way? What if battery technology companies, mining companies, energy producers, tribes, policymakers, and environmentalists came together to look at how local, sustainable battery manufacturing might be made possible to support renewable energy systems? What if all all the key stakeholders sat down, put their heads together, and planned Idaho’s clean energy future.

Some have suggested a collaboration with Idaho National Laboratory and others to develop a battery co-fab facility or even invite a large battery manufacturer to build a facility here. Alternatively, Idaho could invest in start-ups, supporting the growth of innovators, like Joule Case, Kore, and Inergy. Kore has been looking for a site to locate a large battery manufacturing plant. Joule Case (currently manufacturing in Garden City, Idaho) is also developing a large mobile battery system. Funding could come from Representative Simpson’s plan for a $1.25 billion Snake River Center for Advanced Storage. This facility is proposed to be located in Lewiston/Clarkston, providing a much needed economic boost to the area. Also, a facility located near INL would also make sense as well.

Idaho should invest in Idaho. China invests billions into their startups. Canada invests in their startups as well. Unless we consider doing the same, we will quickly be outshadowed. Borrowing from an innovation fund model in British Columbia, Canada — the State of Idaho could set aside $10 million in funding, managed through the Department of Commerce. This year alone, through smart fiscal responsibility, Idaho had a record surplus of more than $600 million. Through a vetting process, the Department of Commerce would select five startups, to receive investment of two million each over three funding rounds. The intent would be to support commercializing cleantech (this could also include clean ag-tech) innovations.

Starting at $500k, each firm would receive up to $2,000,000 with the second and third rounds given once certain milestones are met. This would be a competitive process with a huge boost to our economy — leading to a growth in tech jobs — the kind of jobs that lead to greater overall prosperity for everyone. If the program is successful, it should be repeated. In Idaho, startups account for a huge portion of job growth, according to Kauffman Indicators of Entrepreneurship. We can turn a few of these startups into the next Micron or Simplot, if we invest wisely.

With an abundance of wind, sun, affordable land, good academic institutions, support for tech and cleantech innovation, as well as a great quality of life, Idaho is well-poised to take the lead as the clean energy leader. Inc. predicts that Idaho will be the next Silicon Valley with the growth in technology startups. Perhaps, by solving our global energy problems, we can do better for the world. We have the key ingredients to build a prosperous clean energy and technology economy while staying true to Idaho’s core values — a sense of community, security, healthy lifestyle, and stewardship of natural resources. While potatoes and microchips have been our legacy, with our current position as #1 in clean energy, it seems inevitable that our future is clean affordable energy — supporting our microchips, food manufacturers, and other industries for years to come.

About The Author:

Amber Bieg lives in Boise with her family and is a sustainability consultant with Warm Springs Consulting and Sprout Energy. She has been working on systems change and sustainability problem solving for two decades. Follow our work at www.warmspringsconsulting.com and at www.sproutenergy.com.

Entrepreneur, writer, artist, thinker — topics: Sustainability, money, gender & power