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Idaho Energy Community – February Symposium

Posted by John Martin at Tue Feb 14 18:00:00 +0000 2012

There are few more optimistic phrases in the English language than “First Annual” (the audacity!) and among the top-five has to be “Second Annual” (the ambition!). But participating in a first- or second-annual feels like you’re really “in on the ground floor” of something and that’s how it was this past week at the 2nd Annual Idaho Energy Symposium in Boise, mounted by some equally young and audacious new catalysts in the Idaho market.

Only in 2010 was a statewide technology-sector trade-association created in Idaho analogous to the Colorado Tech Assc., Tech Council of Southern California, Washington Tech Industries Assc., and so forth. This new Idaho Technology Council (ITC) really filled a vacuum, evidenced by its rapid uptake in membership and program participation. They’ve naturally divided into SIGs, one for software, like Washington’s original WSA, and one for life sciences like the WBBA. Happily, there is a 3rd SIG – the ITC Energy Consortium who co-hosted of this 2nd Annual Symposium. Emergence of ITC/EC, like that of the Ohio Clean Economy Council, Chicago Clean Energy Trust and Washington Clean Technology Alliance, shows that ‘cleantech’ is not just a fluke, boondoggle or passing fugue, but is seen by a spectrum of hard-nosed capitalists as FUNDAMENTAL to America’s economic future.

The other co-host was a new joint-venture between Idaho’s state university system and the Department of Energy termed the Center for Advanced Energy Studies, or CAES, based out of a new 55,000ft2 state-of-the-art research complex in Idaho Falls that just opened in late 2009 literally across the tracks from the DoE’s Idaho National Laboratory (INL), but with seconded researchers on each of the university campuses.

It seems, indeed, “there is a tide in the affairs of men”, when you consider that between ’008 and ‘010

·  UW Enviro Innovation Challenge    ·  WSU Imagine Tomorrow for high-school    ·  Oregon BEST and BESTFest   
·  Pivotal Leaders program    ·  new energy programs at WSU-TriCities    ·  Northwest Energy Angels   
·  WA Clean Technology Alliance    ·  Cleantech Open Northwest    ·  Cleantech Open Rocky Mountain   
·  Idaho Technology Council    ·  Idaho-CAES   
·  Spokane CLEEN | NW    ·  Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative   

all got started or gained critical momentum. While perhaps not quite Chrysler’s “halftime in America” certainly there’s been a buzzer on the court -- and a new “period” of the Northwest’s game is underway for the 20-teens.

Over a day and a half the Symposium presented an array of local businesses both established and emergent, and researchers from each of Idaho State University in Pocatello, Boise State University and the University of Idaho in Moscow and Boise – DoE’s partners in CAES.

The research and business presentations covered an array of ‘cleantech’ from smart buildings and engineered lighting and power storage to waste-to-energy schemes and grid engineering (see sideblog).

In any energy-frontiers event, two topics which will be special distinctions for Idaho are PROFESSIONAL SYSTEMS ENGINEERING and NUCLEAR.

Engineering Services -------

While we all like to focus on startup activity as a measure of prowess, equally important in a field like energy and environment are professional system-engineering providers, an area of historic strength in Idaho. As much a bedrock of Idaho as potatoes and mining was the global engineering firm Morrison Knudsen which started its first job exactly 100 years ago, and undertook everything from Hoover Dam and Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Canaveral to the Chunnel and portions of the transAlaska pipeline. Even as MK got merged and purged towards the end of the 20th century, the culture of global engineering was firmly rooted in Idaho and spawned many strong professional service practices including these attending this conference:

         Power Engineers     US Geothermal     FDJ Engineering   
         Site Based Energy     Critigen   

Included in this group should also be the main public utility in the state, Idaho Power Co. While the Columbia and Tennessee dams and much of Canadian hydro has been government funded, IPC built their Hells Canyon facilities on their own and they remain the largest privately-owned hydro complex in North America. And now IPC is one of few or any other utility to have nearly its entire (99+%) customer base on smart metering devices. The final connections were made in December, and while other utilities have demos - and IPC’s service population around 500,000 is modest -- it is surely one of the most comprehensive roll-outs in the US.

One factoid: those new meters take measurements about once an hour (totaling 26 times per day) compared to once a month ‘meter-readings’, that means IPC has gone from about 500,000 data points per month to about 400-million per month ! Bring in the data miners !! Idaho Power is also starting to roll-out dashboard services to those customers allowing a variety of tracking metrics viewed on a rolling 48-72 hour basis and eventually in real-time!

Interestingly, IPC said that its state regulators helped move it towards an all-smart-metered grid. Some states see their utility commission as a drag on innovation, but it would appear Idaho is fortunate in its regulators, who have helped Idaho Power have one of the smartest grids in the country.


While WA’s Hanford site was more involved with military apps, the following quote is fairly accurate that "The history of nuclear energy for peaceful application has principally been written in Idaho."

That writing was done at the Idaho National Laboratory at the eastern end of the state. The tiny hamlet of Arco, ID was the first in the world to get 100% of its daily electricity from nuclear. Also, interesting as being in the middle of the desert/prairie, INL is a major NAVY site -- having pioneered much of the development of nuclear drivetrains for SUBMARINES. This electromotive expertise has now led INL to be a major DoE site for developing technical standards for electric CARS.

So many reactor variations have been built and tested at INL (and most now decommissioned) that the desert west of Idaho Falls holds allegedly the largest concentration of reactors on the planet. One impressive entrepreneurship story from this engineering heritage is Premier Technology, Inc. in Blackfoot, ID. Their CEO and Founder Doug Sayer made two presentations at this conference. PTI is one of the ‘premier’ global experts in specialized hardware fabrication for the nuclear power industry. Through a strategy of avoiding outsourcing and close-holding their craft skills, intellectual property and equity capital they have bootstrapped sweat and a small cash stake into a >$75-million manufacturing center of excellence covering a variety of energy and commercial industries.

Despite our love of software, and it’s critical role in efficiency systems, a great of deal energy, water and other ‘cleantech’ still involves A LOT of metal-bending and literally cutting-edge manufacturing skills, much more than recent booms in info-tech and then bio-tech. Cleantech brings us back full-circle to hard-core manufacturing and, if good high-efficiency vehicles can now be “Imported from Detroit™”, it’s also good to know that power engineers worldwide are getting their high-grade metallurgical machining and manufacturing "Imported from Idaho".

Manufacturing and ENGINEERING are two sides of the same coin and in the nuclear field, as in the utility grid generally, a disturbing supermajority of nuclear engineers will achieve retirement age during the 20-teens, creating urgency for training a new generation, along with an opportunity given that we’re at a real inflection point of new nuclear designs -- pebble-bed, small-modular-reactors (SMR), pump-less systems and so forth. This need and the response regarding nuclear education was discussed by Jason Harris, a professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello, along the same I-15 corridor as INL and Premier Technology. Nearly a decade ago, the total number of nuclear engineering students in Idaho was 2 or 3 dozen. Today there are nearly 300 in Idaho’s colleges and another 100 or so in related fields such as Physics. Given that the largest nuclear student cohort in North America is around 400 at Texas A&M (who knew?) that places Idaho in the forefront of nuclear workforce development in this hemisphere.

Disruptive Ideas-------

Discussion of the research and business is in this separate entry (see link). I’ll conclude this entry with comments from the luncheon keynote by John Gardner, Director of the Efficiency Institute of CAES at Boise State U., Dr. Gardner proposed that less often are there truly disruptive technologies or chemistries, but more often disruptive IDEAS. Neither Henry Ford nor Steve Jobs really pioneered fundamental new science, but had hugely impactful ideas – about simplicity and accessibility, services and design. He suggested that, barring the unknown unknown, no real mass\energy ‘breakthroughs’ (e.g. cold fusion) seem likely in our lifetimes, so what may be instead be truly disruptive are new IDEAS ABOUT energy.

One of those may be that while we’ve long focused on acquiring CHEAP energy (lower prices every day), there is evidence of an increasing MARKET PERCEPTION that

-- not all energy is the same, some is SMARTER and some is BETTER

and not all consumption is the same, some is SMARTER and some is BETTER

That is, while previous energy markets may have been, or been seen as, an un-differentiated contest of joules, energy markets are starting to differentiate and de-commoditize in the same way as clothing, cars, furniture and other markets -- some will just demand cheap, others will seek out more “value-added” consumption models. And where there is differentiated demand and support for value-added, product, market and transaction innovation can flourish.

Interestingly, the following week, an article came out in MIT Sloan Management Review about the dramatically increasing number of corporations explicitly citing “sustainability” as a corporate priority.

              • In a survey, 70% said it emerged on their agenda in the past 6 years

                                20% said it emerged just in the past 2 years

It’s main point was that this is no longer about “greenwashing”, but that discretionary consumer demand for “smarter”, “better” products is driving part of this and that another part is driven by cold, hard, calculus that sustainability is proving to increase profitability.

He also offered a separate and engineering-related comment that was quite provocative. Which was to simply remember that every energy storage device is, implicitly, a BOMB. Pent-up energy in a compact space. Released suddenly and without control, that’d be the basic definition of an explosion. I’ve long thought that in some distant, all-electric-transport future, our grandchildren will marvel that we all drove around in Molotov cocktails and parked hundreds of ‘bombs’ under skyscrapers each day. So when you worry about the Chevy Volt, or putting a fuel cell under your patio/deck, just remember those explosive devices which sit in your garages each night, and surround you daily on the gridlocked freeway. Certainly food for thought !

And there was much food for thought and excellent “plugging in” at this conference which the local community had the audacity to call “Second Annual”. It's also always interesting to see how people successful in other fields are drawn into the cleantech field (see sideblog).

Two data points make a tradition, so I look forward to the now-traditional Idaho Energy gathering next winter. Having these strong new organizing catalysts of ITC and CAES will certainly help draw global attention to the strong pool of innovation growing in Idaho.


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