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Idaho's Balance of Power

Energy may be the big winner at the Statehouse


There's little doubt which agency is Idaho's biggest loser in Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget.

Otter requested a $25 million reduction for Health and Welfare's Medicaid Division. The Departments of Environmental Quality and Veterans' Services are also projected to take significant hits.

But if you're looking for a winner, you won't have to drill too deep into Otter's request to see a pattern: energy-related initiatives are earmarked for healthy increases. Take the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, for example. CAES is a public/private partnership including Idaho's three public universities, the Idaho National Laboratory and private industry.

The governor wants to pump more than $1.5 million of Idaho's general funds into CAES, so it is little coincidence that the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce has plugged into the grid to make energy innovation the touchstone of its annual legislative forum on Thursday, Jan. 13.

The name CAES will be dropped more than a few times by Ric Gale, senior vice president at Idaho Power. He's the go-to person for CAES' Idaho Energy Efficiency Research Institute.

"I fully expect that we'll be opening a public interactive research center in Boise this year," Gale told BW. "Imagine a 'green' building where everyone from practitioners to engineers to consumers would come to workshop or learn about energy efficiencies coming through their lives."

Who's on board? You name it. Boise State, the University of Idaho, Idaho State, the INL, Intermountain Gas, Avista, Micron, Simplot and Idaho's Office of Energy Resources. Gale's bosses at Idaho Power have allowed him to redefine his job to help spearhead the initiative.

"Ultimately we'd like to see a curriculum in our public schools, K through 12," said Gale. "Imagine kids getting a fundamental understanding of energy economics."

They haven't compared notes, but Gale could have been reading Clay Young's mind. Young, co-founder and CEO of Inovus Solar, will implore lawmakers at the same forum to re-engineer K-12 public education to have a greater focus on math and science.

"I'm not the first to say this, and I won't be the last," Young said. "But we are not producing the kind of math and science talent that we need to be an innovative culture. Right now, the focus seems to be getting kids to pass the minimum standards of No Child Left Behind. Those minimum standards are unacceptable."

Young said he sees the issue through a prism that he's familiar with: as a businessman.

"We need to focus on the outcomes," said Young. "Think of how successful organizations work: they set a goal, they put a series of actions in place and they measure themselves on the progress along those actions. They reward the right behavior and strongly disincent the behavior that isn't in line."

Young knows a thing or two about outcomes. Only two years ago, Inovus Solar received its first purchase order. The Boise company has experienced 100 percent annual growth rate since, with customers in the Middle East (Dubai, Egypt, Jordan), Asia (Korea, Vietnam) and Europe (Italy, Spain). Inovus has even more customers domestically in cities, military bases and university campuses. But don't think that Young is satisfied with the current growth rate.

"I'd hire twice the number of people next year if I had greater access to capital," said Young.

And that's his second message to lawmakers: a new economic strategy.

"We have to re-focus on a key sector that isn't agriculture," said Young. "It's classic portfolio management. We have to diversify. The cost of energy is a huge, huge problem for the world, which means it's a huge, huge opportunity for our state."

If Idaho doesn't step up to the energy plate, Young said Utah will.

"In Idaho right now, investment capital is an absolute black hole," said Young. "But there's a model in Utah where the state is playing an active role in soliciting capital participants into their market. They've successfully funded 21 start-ups out of the University of Utah. That's an incredibly high number--second only to MIT."

They haven't compared notes but Young could have been reading Liz Woodruff's mind (we detect a pattern here). Woodruff recently assumed the position of executive director of the Snake River Alliance. But when the legislature is in session, she also carries the mantle of coordinator for the Idaho Energy Collaborative, a group of 30 state agencies, non-profits, academics and advocates looking for common ground on energy efficiency and renewable energy.

"We've been planning our legislative work since last spring," said Woodruff, outlining the collaborative's agenda for the 2011 session, including a push for something called PACE, or property assessed clean energy. It would enable new financing mechanisms for new energy projects. PACE would require a constitutional amendment in Idaho because it would allow municipalities to incur indebtedness.

The collaborative also wants to renew a tax rebate for renewable energy projects above 25 kilowatts, grow more green jobs in Idaho and put together a 20/20 plan--an energy-driven economic vision of Idaho in the year 2020.

When Woodruff testifies or represents herself during the legislative session it's usually as a member of the collaborative. But she acknowledged that being the executive director of the Snake River Alliance, Idaho's self-proclaimed nuclear watchdog, may carry some political baggage.

"I think some people may define us based on the nuclear divide, but I think that's because they haven't had the opportunity to talk with us on our clean energy work," said Woodruff.

"We find legislators on both sides of the aisle that would say we've been incredibly helpful in advancing clean energy in Idaho. There's always going to be stereotypes or a desire to exclude a group that you disagree with, but I think the message we're trying to advance is that diverse stakeholders can come together on things that make sense. That's the only way we're going to get things done in this state."