The geothermal waters that warm the Idaho Capitol and the sprawling wind turbines towering on the horizons of southern Idaho signal the state's growing commitment to green energy.
That's the story Idaho's Department of Commerce is telling 13 foreign journalists traveling around the state this week on a tour sponsored by the state agency. State leaders are trying to make the case that Idaho is on the cusp of becoming a center for green energy development.
The journalists, from China, Taiwan, Japan, Austria, the Middle East and Switzerland, saw geothermal energy heat a fish farm that raises tropical fish near Hagerman and got a look at the College of Southern Idaho's wind program on their way to Sun Valley Monday night to hear from Idaho National Laboratory experts and several energy industry leaders. They will hear about Idaho tourism and tour the Basque Block Wednesday between meetings with Boise energy entrepreneurs.
Idaho's green energy push is very different than that of other states and countries. It has offered few tax incentives and has never established so-called renewable energy portfolio standards - which require utilities to use so much green power- to promote the industry.
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Instead, Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little told the journalists, Idaho's quality of life and the state's commitment to fiscal restraint offer a strong base for the emerging green energy business. Idaho, he noted, has the smallest debt in the nation.
"We balance our revenues with our expenses," Little said.
So what's Idaho got to sell?
Earlier this month, Chinese-owned Hoku Scientific began producing polysilicon for use in solar panels at its new $390 millionplant in Pocatello. Economic development officials there say they have three other energy companies looking to build in eastern Idaho that could bring more than $100 million in investment. Officials could know by June whether one has committed to Idaho, and by the end of the year for the rest.
"Hoku just fired up the plant and they're off to the races," Little said.
Micron Technology recently forged a partnership with Australian power giant Origin Energy to develop solar power technologies that is expected to lead to commercialization within 18 months. The U.S. Department of Energy, through the Idaho Office of Energy Resources, awarded Micron a $5 million grant to help it enter into the light emitting diode (LED) high-efficiency lighting market that is expected to take off by 2012.
Paul Kjellander, director of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources, said Micron is moving forward with aggressive business plans in its LED section that could lead to new jobs in the Treasure Valley.
"They are committed to be completely vertically integrated from microchip to light fixture," Kjellander told the journalists.
Kjellander hopes Micron and Hoku anchor new energy clusters of companies that will create an entirely new industry for the state. Already in Boise are Inovus Solar, which makes solar street lights, and M2M Communications, which helps irrigation farmers to more efficiently use millions of watts of electricity.
Idaho's decision not to require renewable portfolio standards may turn out to help the state's green energy industry, said John Gardner, Boise State University associate vice president for energy research policy and campus sustainability.
The utilities forced to adopt the earliest green energy technology may get locked into less-efficient, more costly technology than will develop as the industry quickly matures, he said.
And while Idaho's state government cuts and lack of tax credits may turn off some businesses, others may find it attractive that the state is willing to hold the line on spending - and taxes.
"We might actually come out of this looking pretty smart because we didn't overextend," he said.
Idaho didn't pay to bring the journalists to the state. But it did pay for the tour once they arrived.
One journalist called the state's fiscal restraint "impressive," while seeking more detail. But another reporter asked Little if cutting spending in a crisis made sense.
Little said the state was prudent in using stimulus and rainy-day fund money. But he acknowledged the cuts have been "brutal" to some.
"If you would have told me two years ago we were going to have 19 percent cuts without draconian cutbacks in service, I wouldn't have believed you," Little said.
Idaho clearly is in a better position than most states right now, especially California, said John Church, an economic consultant and professor at Boise State University.
"When the economy turns, Idaho will pick up a fair share of people and businesses that will exit the state of California," Church said.
But the state could choose at this critical juncture to help kick-start its green energy business as the economy improves, he said.
"Some tax credits for renewables could probably spur that on some more," Church said.
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