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I spent today in Glenns Ferry doing community organizing (take that, Barack Obama!). One of my clients is Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., which has proposed a large nuclear reactor near Glenns Ferry in Elmore County, about 65 miles southwest of Boise.

I drove to Glenns Ferry eager to meet with residents, particularly local small business owners who are suffering since the loss of a potato processing plant and other local employers. My head was filled with facts and figures and enthusiasm for working to bring the stable, well-paying jobs that come with a power plant. The owner of a local gourmet foods store said if I really wanted to find lots of supportive people, I should go to the local VFW hall, where volunteers were distributing food baskets.

The desperation of many of the town’s residents really started to sink in at the VFW hall. My first action was to hold the door open so an elderly lady could cart out boxes of donated food. Inside, people formed a line and passed by tables of volunteers to receive food. Yes, I got many people to sign a petition in support of the plant, but I felt empty. These were people of all ages, many abilities, with families and skills and great contributions yet to be made. What kinds of skills would be needed at the plant? several asked. As I ran down the list of typical jobs, I never wanted our plant to be up and running as much as I did then. Each one of these people deserves a good job and I kept them foremost in my mind as a continued meeting with other business owners throughout the day.

I also attended a Glenns Ferry City Council meeting today. Local officials in Glenns Ferry, from what I have been able to tell, strongly support our project and they realize the need for economic development. The meeting began with Liz Woodruff, a Snake River Alliance representative, briefly apologizing for her behavior at a meeting two weeks ago (I did not attend that meeting). At that meeting, AEHI CEO Don Gillispie updated the city council on our proposal and, from what a number Glenns Ferry residents have told me, her behavior included rolling her eyes, giggling, smirking and generally acting rude during Don’s presentation to the council. I’ve seen her act that way at other public meetings, so it’s a pattern.

Woodruff’s behavior two weeks ago made an impression on a number of Glenns Ferry residents, so it is understandable she felt the need to apologize today for being “visibly upset” and acting “unprofessionally” (her words today to the council). She said today her “upset came from misinformation being spread” about our proposed reactor (in other words, her behavior was Don Gillispie’s fault). I am pleased to report the audience accorded Woodruff the respect she should have given Don Gillispie. Glenns Ferry people – even those who disagree with our plans to build a plant – have at all times been polite to me.

As I sat through Woodruff’s presentation, though, I kept thinking what she would have told the people picking up food at the VFW – if she would even care to go there – and what she is doing in her own community organizing work to bring more jobs to Elmore County.

It’s easier to obstruct than construct, to tear down rather than build up, to lash out rather than listen respectfully. But that’s not the kind of community organizing that’s going bring people jobs, opportunity and industry.

While I risk upsetting people in the building industry,  I support recent legislation by Rep. John “Bert” Stevenson, R-Rupert, intended to charge new homes and businesses a fee for electrical system expansion.

The development industry will likely oppose this measure, but it would be shortsighted of them to do so. Idaho Power is in a near-continuous state of asking the PUC for rate increases, in part to extend power lines and build more power plants.  This isn’t fair to existing customers and it reduces opportunities for new businesses that want to set up here. Idaho Power can’t raise its rates enough to effectively deliver power, so our region has to turn away prospective industries because we can’t supply them with electricity. Existing residents are asked to pay for newcomers. The system doesn’t serve anyone very well.

A better system (what I understand Stevenson is proposing) would be  similar to how cities charge for sewer hookups. Your monthly sewer bill is strictly for maintenance and operation – none of it goes for capacity expansion. When a new home hooks up to Boise City’s sewer system, though, the developer must pay $3,150, which goes into a fund for future treatment plant expansions and new lines. That keeps the city from charging existing customers for growth, yet growth can happen because the city can fund it.

Imagine if, in the Fall of 2007, two major employers could have relocated here, because Idaho Power had a chest of money collected from impact fees and specifically set aside for new growth. Idaho Power would have been in a much better position to step forward with a plan to accommodate the new industries. The same building industry that might oppose these fees would profit greatly from the new homes and businesses that would result.

The Public Utilities Commission said Stevenson’s measure could help utilities recover costs of some growth-related capital expansion, though existing customers should bear some of the increases when facilities are expanded. That’s fair enough. The Ada County Highway District’s impact fees, first levied in 1992, aren’t intended to cover the complete costs of growth.

Gov. Butch Otter has been criticized as being cool to Idaho’s tech sector, instead favoring old-school businesses like ag, lumber and mining, even as those make up a dwindling part of the state’s economy.

Otter possibly drove a spike through the heart of those assertions – literally – by pounding a spike into a Western Ada County field to symbolically kick off a visionary plan to make a Silicon Valley-style development.  ESTech ( Eagle Star Technology Corridor) would be a business park on nearly 80,000 acres of land that would house a variety of technological companies and be a local effort by government in both Eagle and Star. A group of businesses seeking to make Idaho a destination for tech industries hatched the idea and Otter has signed on in support.

Otter said there is money in the Department of Commerce to help pay for infrastructure like water and sewage, which is also good to hear. There are several obstacles, however. Idaho Power has trouble providing much new electricity and there will be transportation issues to work out as well. Given the current state of the credit markets, financing will be hard to come by. If the governor is too far ahead of the Legislature on this issue, which is very likely, he might face some opposition; it isn’t clear to me, however, how much support he would need from the Legislature.

From an urban planning perspective, it would be better to use the many vacant commercial properties in the area, but that may not be possible due to the need to concentrate the industry.

The vision would also diversify Idaho’s technology industry, which has been heavy on manufacturing and lighter on software development.  But with Micron and HP shedding jobs, diversification is essential.