Bannock County Idaho: The Nation's Alternative Energy Birthplace
30 Jun, 2008By: Andrea Johnson
Exceptional Business Environment Ensures Industry Flourishes
Eastern Idaho has a long, rich history of advocating alternative energy. Back in 1949, after an exhaustive nationwide search, the Atomic Energy Commission chose eastern Idaho to be the home of today’s Idaho National Laboratory. Here, the nation’s best and brightest engineers and scientists explored the potential of the only recognized alternative energy of the time – nuclear power. Two years later, in December, 1951, their efforts resulted in the first-ever nuclear-power produced electricity.
Today, eastern Idaho - including Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rexburg, Blackfoot and American Falls - is evolving into a national hub for solar, wind and hydroelectric energy producers and their affiliated organizations. From Advanced Manufacturing Engineering Technologies (AMET), which produces some of the welding industry’s most advanced process-control and -monitoring systems, to Hoku Materials, a polysilicon plant that serves the solar industry, to Nordic Windpower, a turbine manufacturer for wind farms, to the Idaho Accelerator Center, one of the few research facilities in the world that tests durability through nuclear physics applications, the world’s premier alternative energy experts and organizations are being drawn to the region.
For good reason.
“We considered locations all over the United States, but eastern Idaho was the clear choice. We received so much support from the elected officials and local economic development agencies during our search, they’re genuine champions of renewable energy and have integrated it into their way of life,” says Andrea Taber, communications director, Nordic Windpower. “What’s more, there’s an outstanding engineering department at Idaho State that fuels a high-quality labor force, as well as an excellent infrastructure and favorable costs of operation – the utilities in Idaho are some of the least expensive in the nation. The location is central to potential customers and transportation. And the quality of life here is unbeatable – housing is affordable and it’s simply a beautiful place to live. We’re going to be hiring more than 150 engineers in the next five years, and we find people are eager to move to Pocatello. From quality of life to research and development support, eastern Idaho has it all.”
Research and Development Leadership
In eastern Idaho, unparalleled education, research and development are literally at your doorstep. Idaho National Laboratory (INL), located in Idaho Falls, is the nation’s preeminent nuclear- and alternative-energy research lab. Its mission: to ensure the nation’s energy security with safe, competitive and sustainable energy systems.
For instance, INL actively facilitates and forms partnerships between industry, academia, government and community-based organizations to ensure that there is a well-trained energy workforce. One example of this is a partnership with Idaho State University (ISU) and Partners for Prosperity, a nonprofit with a mission of reducing poverty in the region. Together, they created the Energy Systems Technology and Education Center on the ISU campus, to ensure qualified technicians are available for today’s and tomorrow’s energy facilities.
The program is typical for ISU, which regularly partners with companies, in both the public and private sectors, to tailor workforce training programs at no cost.
“Whether you’re an organization of 20 or 2,000, ISU will work hand-in-hand with you to develop highly customized workforce training programs, such as blade manufacturing for wind turbines, at the university or at your worksite,” explains Gynii Gilliam, executive director of the Bannock Development Corporation, a nonprofit which provides economic development in eastern Idaho’s Bannock County. “Moreover, they’ll include the training in their curriculum so you’re ensured of having a steady stream of qualified graduates.”
Unparalleled Local, State and Federal Support
The training programs offered through ISU are a reflection of the enthusiasm and attention alternative energy companies and affiliated organizations receive when they consider a move to eastern Idaho.
“It has been a great pleasure to work with the local economic development agencies, the city of Pocatello, the mayor’s office, and the city council because of their forward-thinking and professionalism – it was instrumental in attracting our company to the region,” says Steve Petersen, owner of Petersen, Inc., which moved to the region in 2007 and provides steel fabrication for various applications including wind towers.
“We have a very pro-business attitude and can give every business the attention it deserves because we’re a smaller state,” points out Gilliam. “There’s very much a down-home attitude here which so many companies I’ve worked with find refreshing. We make it very easy for them to get an audience with everyone from the mayor to the director of commerce to even the governor. Our goal is to help you reach a decision, and move you through the whole process as quickly as possible so you can be operating and turning a profit in record time. I’ve heard time and again how companies have been impressed with such comprehensive support and follow-through.”
This support extends beyond advocacy to financial incentives. Recently, a property tax cap was placed on any business that invested at least $1 billion in a single county. “The purpose was to appeal to companies that require a capital-intensive investment, which is typical in the alternative energy industries,” notes Linda Martin, CEcD, executive director of Grow Idaho Falls, Inc., the local economic development agency covering Idaho Falls, Ammon and Bonneville County.
It’s no wonder that Areva, a major supplier of uranium enrichment services, announced this May that they will build a $2 billion plant in Bonneville County. This same legislation benefits American Falls’ Southeast Idaho Energy Project, another $2 billion project that will use coal-gasification technology to manufacture fertilizers and transportation fuels.
“We feel very strongly that if your company is engaged in energy generation or the fuel cycle, you need to look at eastern Idaho,” says Martin.
In addition, there is an abundance of urban renewal districts where all utilities and infrastructure are in place so businesses may build without any extra expense or labor.
Low Overhead, High Profits
Doing business in eastern Idaho adds up to an even greater value when you consider operations costs.
“We beat California 10 to 1 and Oregon 4 to 1 on workforce costs. For instance, $15 an hour here is the equivalent of $23 an hour in California and $21 in Oregon. When you have to pay more per hour, all of your labor costs escalate – from insurance to workman’s compensation,” notes Gilliam.
Idaho utilities are ranked among the 10 least expensive in the nation. “It’s natural for us to be on the forefront of alternative energy because we have benefited from it ourselves for decades,” says Brandon Bird, executive director of the Bingham Economic Development Corporation. “It’s no wonder we have some of the cheapest energy in the nation.”
The cost of land, whether leasing or owning, is competitive, as well. The average house costs around $90,000, making eastern Idaho a very affordable place to live. Its proximity to north-south and east-west interstates stretching across the nation, plus easy links and access to the Union Pacific Railroad, drives down transportation costs as well. The low population density means getting from point A to point B is ultra fast, saving time and money.
“You can travel 45 miles in a half hour here; you’re lucky to go 15 miles in that amount of time in California,” notes Bird.
And if you still aren’t convinced of the ease of doing business in Idaho, consider this: Idaho Power recently announced an ambitious program to build new transmission lines, making it easier and faster for alternative energy organizations to connect with the electrical grid.
The Optimal Business Climate
What makes Idaho the best place for alternative energy also makes it the best place to live.
“There are so many wide, open spaces here. With our crystalline rivers, lakes and waterfalls; soaring mountains and lush valleys, wherever you are, you’re just minutes away from wonderful recreational opportunities,” says Bird. “Those same attributes make this the perfect climate for alternative energy - the wind blows out of the mountains - ideal for wind farms. The sky is clear and the sun is strong for solar energy, and we’ve been benefiting from the hydroelectric energy generated from our waterways for decades.
“In every way, Idaho is the natural place for alternative energy to flourish.”