Idaho takes off with renewable energy

Posted by Renee Magyar on October 7, 2013

A statewide energy initiative will spur biomass development

New opportunities are on the way for Salmon, Idaho

Salmon, Idaho is a small town nestled in the Salmon-Challis National Forest. For decades, the forest sustained the community, bringing jobs, revenues, and stability to its residents. However, environmental challenges have limited Salmon's ability to harvest timber. While the town enjoys a growing tourism industry, Salmon faces high unemployment and other economic difficulties, which have put a strain on schools and community services.

Like many western rural communities, Salmon uses propane and diesel to heat homes, businesses, schools, and public facilities. These fuels are expensive, often travel long distances, and create high carbon emissions. Cheaper fuel like natural gas will likely never reach these areas, so Salmon and other communities remain dependent on petroleum products.

But new options are opening up. Once again, the nearby forest is a rich natural resource full of opportunity. This time, the focus is on forest restoration, which entails new jobs, reduces wildfire risk, and creates a local, renewable energy source: biomass.

Biomass typically consists of wood chips and sawdust that come from forest thinning projects, which then become sources of heat or energy. Sustainable Northwest has championed biomass in Oregon for many years. Since we entered this field 5 years ago, the number of institutional facilities with biomass heating has grown from 2 to 19 throughout the state. As partners with the State of Oregon, we've pioneered the growth of the 'wood-to-energy cluster.'  A cluster is a community that harvests wood waste (chips and sawdust) from nearby forest restoration projects, and then turns that material into fuel to generate heat and energy for itself and possibly other communities. It's a closed loop, making that community self-sufficient, saving energy dollars, and potentially generating income by selling energy in the process.  

Local cluster projects create heating energy from forest restoration.
Local cluster projects create heating energy from forest restoration.

We've been working to create cluster communities in Oregon, and now, with a new grant from the U.S. Forest Service, we have the chance to do the same in Idaho.

In partnership with the State of Idaho and Salmon Valley Stewardship, we will find opportunities for facilities in Salmon and Lemhi County to begin using biomass.  We'll investigate practical wood supply chains for these facilities to make the transition from oil to biomass. And we?ll identify financing opportunities for these retrofit projects to take place throughout the state.

Salmon is just one of many Idaho cluster projects about to get underway, and they have the potential to yield incredible benefits: new jobs, diversified local economies, reduced energy costs, smaller carbon footprints, and greater incentives for environmental restoration.

It may be naïve to think of biomass as a panacea that will solve all rural community challenges. But no one can dispute that it's a start. Biomass makes sense in places where other energy sources are either expensive or inaccessible, and where nearby forest-based industry already exists. The benefits have already made themselves clear in Oregon, as case studies show. Biomass takes us on a holistic path that integrates ecological stewardship and sustainable economic development. It offers a possibility for these communities to become self-sufficient. It is a hope grounded in science, backed by citizens who are determined to do good for people and planet.

Slowly, but surely, we're getting there.