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The Good, the Bad, the Green of Alternative Energy

Powering your iPad with sun, wind and poop

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There he was on the July 14 front page of the New York Times. Those scheming eyes. That devil-may-care grin. And that big-as-Texas cowboy hat. The ultimate bad-ass of big oil, J.R. Ewing (or at least actor Larry Hagman, reviving the '70s icon who double-dealt his way to fictional fortune on the TV series Dallas).

But the 2010 version of J.R. was promoting--brace yourself--solar energy. Instead of "drill baby drill," this J.R. is extolling "shine baby shine."

Conventional wisdom maintains that alternative energy evolves from concept into reality once the marketplace drives the conversation.

"That's exactly right," said Robert Paul, managing member of Alternative Power Development. "For years, there's been a lot of talk about renewable energy in Idaho. This is reality."

This reality is Paul's 20-year agreement with Idaho Power to sell the sun. Specifically, it will come from something called Grand View Solar PV One, a field of solar panels on land leased from the J.R. Simplot Company about 16 miles west of Mountain Home. It's to be the largest commercial operation of its kind in Idaho and the only agreement of its kind with Idaho Power. Picture 180 structures, each about the size of a hay barn, on 200 acres. The "solar barns" will have a one-sided slanted roof, at a right angle, with the high side to the north and the low side to the south.

Paul said Idaho is the solar industry's best kept secret.

"Southwest Idaho is just about as good as California or the Southwest. Given the lay of the land and the number of sunny, cloudless days, the insolate rate is very high," said Paul.

Insolation is the measure of solar radiation energy received on a given surface in a given time.

Pending a green light from Idaho's Public Utilities Commission, Paul is expecting to break ground in the fourth quarter of 2010. The $75 million construction project is expected to generate 100 plus construction jobs and should take six to eight months for completion.

"But we can begin generating power as early as December or January, as the solar barns are built in phases," said Paul.

Paul is an alternative energy veteran. He was a project developer of some of the first commercial wind farms in the West. So he nodded approvingly when we spoke of another of Idaho's green energy landmarks, this one on a rural windswept ridge 10 miles east of Idaho Falls. The $300 million Goshen North Wind Farm will boast massive turbines, measuring 270 feet in diameter, more than the length of a Boeing 747. But there is an unexpected tint to this green project. One need look no further than its investor: British Petroleum. Yes, that BP.

Amanda Abbot, director of Government and Public Affairs at BP Wind Energy, said her parent company's immediate priority is managing the massive oil spill in the Gulf, but the focus of its "green" subsidiary is to "manage our wind energy businesses and continue to deliver on our strategy. We're in this for the long haul."

Citing her company's interests in eight wind farms nationwide, Abbot scoffs at the idea of questioning their motives.

"I don't think a $4 billion investment is a publicity stunt."

BP's Goshen North collaborator is Northwest-based Ridgeline Energy. Rich Rayhill, its vice president, said most regional energy companies need a bigger partner.

"A lot of the studies are hundreds of thousands of dollars. And when you're signing up for turbines, that's millions of dollars of checks you're writing. It's economically overwhelming, and you need someone that's got the money."

Rayhill said he would have preferred if the wind-power were heading for the Idaho grid.

"We tried to sell it to both Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power. We entered into competitive bidding processes, but we weren't successful."

He said even though the project won't generate power for Idaho residents (it's heading to California), he estimates a $20 million impact to the local economy during construction alone.

But something very different in the wind is swirling around a third alternative energy proposal. Simply put, they want to power your iPad with poop. At a Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, manure is collected, liquid is separated from solid, the solids are composted and the liquid goes into a heated digester that speeds decomposition, releasing methane gas. The methane is burned, and the heat is used to power a turbine, creating electricity. The formal name is anaerobic digesting.

Idaho Power has the green light to enter into sales agreements to buy cow patty power from three such projects, all from the same developer, New Energy One of Meridian.

We're guessing that New Energy takes calls from Idaho Power. They didn't take ours. We wanted to ask about hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal subsidization for such projects in Idaho, and if CAFO-derived methane should indeed be included in a renewable energy portfolio. But they didn't return our first call. Or our second. Or third. The company didn't return any of the six calls BW placed.

Maybe they were worried we might read a New York Times op-ed from cattle rancher and lawyer Nicolette Hahn Niman who called the concept a "load of manure."

Or maybe they were concerned that we'd read the Sierra Club's official guidance on methane digesters that claimed "the benefits are so small for CAFO digesters, that they're not consistent with good energy policy."

Or maybe they were nervous we'd stumble upon the Grace Factory Farm Project's position statement on methane digesters that says "they do almost nothing to make a very serious problem less serious."

The sun, the wind and the poop are clearly alternative, but some are greener than others. And one is, let's say, more brown than green.

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