By Joshua Palmer
The quiet communities of Bliss, Hagerman and Burley will be a flurry of activity in coming months as construction begins on Idaho's largest wind farm -- a $500 million project backed by global giant GE Energy Financial Services.
Freight trucks have already started hauling 122 turbine housings the size of small buildings and 366 turbine blades, which are taller than a 10-story structure. But the pace will quicken as the Boise-based Exergy Development Group hurries to complete the project before the end of 2010.
The wind farms, which will create up to 175 jobs and power about 39,700 homes, are being dubbed the Oregon Trail Wind Farm project.
The project -- actually 11 separate wind-farm developments that Exergy is building at the same time -- was inaugurated Tuesday by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, GE Energy Financial Services CEO Alex Urquhart, and representatives of Exergy and Reunion Power, an asset management company based in Manchester Center, Vt.
All four represented parties that played a critical role in bringing the sprawling wind farm to south-central Idaho.
The fact that renewable energy leaders like GE and Reunion Power were backing the project is testament to Idaho's bright future in renewable energy production, Otter said.
"We have made Idaho one of the best places to produce cheap, renewable energy and this project is proof of it," Otter said, adding that legislation currently being proposed by Idaho lawmakers will make it even easier to develop such projects -- including those using geothermal energy.
What does geothermal energy have to do with the Oregon Trail Wind Farm?
Everything, said officials with Idaho Power.
"Wind is not a consistent source of energy because it fluctuates, so we are required to have a steady baseload for every megawatt of wind-energy production that we contract with," said Lisa Grow, senior vice president of power supply for Idaho Power. "That means for projects like (Oregon Trail) we have to bring on another steady source."
That is why Idaho Power is building the Langley Gulch Power Plant in Payette County. Langley Gulch will be a natural gas-fired turbine plant that will generate about 300 megawatts consistently.
Magic Valley lawmakers and economic development officials are hoping to provide baseload power through the region's relatively untapped geothermal sources -- essentially making south-central Idaho one of the first commercial producers of all five forms of renewable energy.
State Rep. Steve Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, said lawmakers are discussing a bill that would reduce the rate geothermal developers pay to lease public lands in Idaho.
"The lease rates were developed around 1973 for oil leases, so one of the things we need to do is bring that rate down to bring in more serious developers," Hartgen said, adding that the bill is expected to surface during the 2011 legislative session.
Lawmakers representing districts in geothermal hotbeds like Twin Falls and Gooding counties hope new geothermal production will then open the door to more wind-generated power production.
But the Idaho Legislature already has one of the most business-friendly policies for renewable energy producers, said Steve Eisenberg, co-founder of Reunion Power.
Much of it he attributed to Idaho's tailor-made code in the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act, also known as PURPA, which requires that utilities purchase energy from small renewable generation projects such as hydro, wind, geothermal and solar. In Idaho code, renewable energy producers can avoid up-front taxes by paying 3 percent from the sale of energy over several years -- allowing developers to spread the tax burden out over multiple years.
It's something Eisenberg called a unique "payment in lieu of taxes."
The business-friendly environment is a key reason why more than 100 renewable energy projects are in some stage of development in Idaho, said Mark Warbis, spokesman for Otter's office.