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Renewed Interest

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Renewable energy in Idaho is a little more attractive thanks to a pair of new state regulations.

First, House Concurrent Resolution 54 directed the Legislature to promote renewable energy projects, while House Bill 500 allowed renewable energy projects to take longer leases on state lands.

Now, fuel cells, low-impact hydroelectric, solar, landfill gasses, wind and non-commercial geothermal projects can get up to a 49-year lease, rather than the 10 years that non-commercial purposes get. The extension makes large-scale projects viable ventures.

"If you're building a commercial project, 10 years is not enough," said Ken Miller, clean energy program director for the Snake River Alliance. "It's been a problem in the past. Developers might be interested now."

"It allows for a renewable developer to have a real, tangible, long-term lease that you could actually take out and present to potential investors," said Paul Kjellander, administrator of state Office of Energy Resources.

For George Bacon, director of the State Department of Lands, one of the greatest benefits of the new legislation is the clarification it provides for future planning.

State endowment land—revenue from which goes to support several state trusts, including public schools­—has been largely overlooked by energy developers, but officials hope that will change.

"We're going to have to market it," said Gerald Fleischman, energy technologist with the state Office of Energy Resources.

"Developers tend to look at it like it's government land," he said. "It's not like federal land, it's more like private land. It's not subject to the same kind of environmental [assessment]."

Bacon said there has been plenty of interest, just no takers.

The Department of Lands is studying how other Western states manage renewable energy in expectation of project proposals.

"We're trying to get ready, so if somebody does come forward, we get a good deal," Bacon said.

Wind projects on private and Bureau of Land Management-controlled land already have a toehold in Southern Idaho, including large projects near Hagerman and Glenns Ferry.

Miller said he sees the potential for similar projects on endowment land, especially if it were a combined-use project, mixing agricultural uses like grazing or farming with energy ventures.

"It's very active as far as the interest," Kjellander said. "[But], like any other project, you have to have a project that makes sense for the developer."

Beyond the length of a lease, that viability also hinges on the proximity of transmission lines, making sites near existing lines more valuable.

"Renewable resources are where you find them and not always close to transmission lines," Kjellander said.

While interest in wind development in Idaho has been steady, Fleischman said project proposals slowed in recent years because of a limit on the size of projects imposed by the Public Utilities Commission. That restriction has since been lifted, and Fleischman thinks interest will pick up again.

But even with increased interest from developers, the state is dealing with the loss of much of the federal grant funding that has been supporting its wind energy program.

Kjellander said wind grants have started to dry up, victims of tightening budgets. The search for alternative funding is ongoing.

"We're not giving up on wind just because there isn't the federal funding there," he said.