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Creating great jobs for Bannock County

July 30, 2017 GMT

It’s no secret that working families in Bannock County and Pocatello struggle to meet basic expenses. There is a way to help them out while simultaneously enriching local economies and increasing the tax base! Developing sustainable energy production in Bannock County will create jobs and infuse cash into local economies.

According to the ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) study of financial hardship produced by United Way, states in the Pacific Northwest — including Idaho — suffer a noteworthy level of poverty among working families due to low wages. We can see this in Pocatello where most of the recent job creation has been in the fast food and chain restaurant sector which pay on the low end of the wage scale. The prevalence of low paying jobs, the fact that the Idaho Legislature maintains the minimum wage at $7.25 per hour, and the relatively high cost of living in Idaho are the perfect recipe for perpetuating our grievous poverty rate. The ALICE bare-minimum survival budget does not include any savings to buffer against unforeseen expenses. The Idaho household survival budget for a family of four is $46,176. In Bannock County, 38% of working households cannot meet basic monthly expenses which include health care, food, housing, child care, transportation, taxes, and $126 for miscellaneous expenses. The ALICE report clearly states the most effective ways to help the working poor in Idaho and Bannock County is “structural economic changes”. Recruiting and supporting businesses that pay a living wage would significantly improve the situation. A living wage for a single adult in Idaho is $8.33 per hour/40 hours per week. A living wage for a young family with 2 children at home is $23.09 per hour/40 hours per week.

Fortunately, Idaho is well positioned to take advantage of a solution that would go a long way toward solving Bannock County’s low wage challenge. That solution is increasing sustainable energy production – specifically wind and solar. Idaho consumes one-third more energy than it produces. The remaining one-third is purchased out-of-state. Purchasing power from other states, even if Idaho utilities own or co-own the production facilities, results in jobs for families in those states, not in Idaho – not in Bannock County. By investing in Southeast Idaho sustainable energy we can bring those jobs home for local families. Two new utility scale solar projects recently came on line in Ada County– Grand View Solar Project and Idaho Solar I. With focused recruiting and appropriate incentives, we could develop similar projects here at home and contribute to local prosperity every time we pay our electric bills.

Idaho has historically relied on hydroelectric power for much of its affordable sustainable energy. However, as weather patterns have become less predictable, hydro power is less reliable and Idaho needs to develop alternative energy sources. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) Idaho State Energy Profile Analysis, Hydroelectric plants have historically provided between three fifths and four fifths of Idaho’s electricity. River and stream flows are good this year, but for the past several years, hydroelectric production was able to provide only about one half of the needed power. If dry, hot weather persists in the Columbia River Basin, river flows from Idaho dams may have to be reduced by as much as twenty percent over time to support fish migrations and habitats.

Clearly Idaho’s climate supports investment in wind and solar. According to EIA’s Idaho energy analysis profile, there is substantial further wind potential in the Snake Valley and on ridges across the state. By investing in solar and wind projects, we can insure our residents and businesses have reliable energy supplies and grow a profitable industry here in Southeast Idaho.

Idaho Power’s 2016 Sustainability Report states that Idaho’s largest utility intends to, “Explore the development of a climate change adaptation plan focusing on the potential impacts to company operations from climate change-related events, including more frequent wildfires, reduced snowpack and lower streamflow and riverflow.” In June, 2017, Idaho Power announced it will close its coal-powered station in Nevada by 2025 because it will no longer be economical to operate. Replace that energy production with sustainable energy facilities located here in Southeast Idaho and hire local workers at a living wage. PacifiCorp (Rocky Mountain Power) which supplies much of eastern Idaho has announced that it will cut its reliance on coal fired generating stations by half by 2034. Again, invest in sustainable energy and bring those jobs home for local working families.

The world (including the United States) is expanding sustainable energy production at an ever-increasing rate. Three hundred and thirty eight mayors from blue and red states have signed an agreement to abide by the Paris Climate Accord. Many have pledged to ensure that their cities rely 100% on renewable energy by 2035. One thousand U.S. institutions and companies such as Google, Amazon, Hewlett Packard, Microsoft, Levi Strauss, Nike, and Mars have signed the “We Are Still In” pledge to fulfill the Paris agreement regardless of whether or not the federal government participates. A dozen states that together represent the world’s third largest economy as well as 200 cities have also pledged to meet Paris Accord commitments.

The sustainable energy sectors continue to grow at a robust rate providing an increasing number of well-paid jobs in equipment manufacturing, installation and construction, and long term maintenance.

According to the US Energy and Employment Report (USEER), the solar energy sector provided 373,807 U.S. jobs in 2016. According to the Solar Foundation Annual Report, solar generated electricity grew by 37.9 % during the first four months of 2017 compared to the same months in 2016. The U.S. Solar Institute reports a 24.5% job growth rate from November 2015 and November 2016.

USEER reports that wind generated electricity grew by 14.2% during the first four months of 2017 as compared to the same months in 2016. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) reports 20% job growth between the end of 2014 and the end of 2015. The majority of the wind jobs created were in project development and construction. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, wind technician is now the fastest growing job in the United States. In May and June, 2017 wind and solar combined provided between 10% and 11% of all U.S. electricity.

USEER further reports that the percentage of electricity generated by geothermal grew by 5.3%.

The report states that if the geothermal capacity of nine western states (one of which is Idaho one) were brought on line, it would create 101,300 construction jobs lasting at least one year and 19,480 permanent full time jobs in those states. Geothermal electricity production is ground water intensive limiting its potential in some locations.

While sustainable source electricity continues to expand, electricity generated by fossil fuels and nuclear power are in decline. Electricity generated through fossil fuels declined by 5.2% during the first four months of 2017 as compared to the same period in 2016. Six nuclear plants closed permanently between 2013 and 2016. According to the latest US Energy Information Monthly, a minimum of eight more will close by 2025. As electricity generated through nuclear power declines, the market is even more favorable for wind and solar whose cost is continuing to drop. With the previously mentioned commitments by states, institutions, large corporations, and cities across the U.S., the demand for electricity generated through sustainables is even more optimistic.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is gathering wage data for sustainable energy sectors. Currently available wage ranges are based on comparable jobs across the energy industry as a whole. The BLS reports wages in the solar power industry range between $27,500 and $97,300 for non-4 year college degree jobs and $43,480 and $66,340 for geothermal energy non-4 year college jobs. They report non-4 year college wages in the wind energy sector range from $29,110 to $87,120. Since smart grids capable of handling intermittent and varying flows are critical to capturing output from renewable generation sites, there are also jobs in updating grid infrastructures. Wages for smart grid jobs range from $29,110 to $71,200. The wage ranges listed here are for direct energy jobs. In addition, each new generation site requires other support staff such as office and security workers depending on the size and nature of the facility.

Clearly, as the world turns increasingly to sustainable sources for energy, the need for technology innovation, maintenance, and equipment manufacturing will be a growth sector for jobs that pay decent wages and do not require a four year college education. As utility companies expand their sustainable energy production facilities, they are also upgrading to smart grids that can handle the fluctuating flow associated with wind and solar. This creates another area of living-wage job expansion.

Currently, many working families experience financial and emotional hardship due to the loss of manufacturing and trade jobs that supported a working middle class from post WWII until recently. Sustainable energy jobs in maintenance, installation, manufacturing, and smart grids can restore jobs for those families in Idaho.

Pocatello and Bannock County officials have the opportunity to improve the lives of those they serve by actively recruiting sustainable energy manufacturing and production firms, and expanding training programs for sustainable energy jobs. With vision and focused action, Bannock County can help Idaho become increasingly energy self-sufficient and profit as a sustainable energy exporter.

Taking inspired action in the sustainable energy sector will not only increase living wage jobs in Bannock County. It will increase the overall tax base and help with much needed budget areas such as infrastructure, tax breaks for small businesses and property owners, and public education. Expanding ISU’s small but effective Energy Systems Technology and Education Center (ESTEC) could attract students from across Idaho as well as the Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain West helping to stabilize enrollment and tuition costs. More than ninety percent of current ESTEC students are placed immediately upon completing their training.

Capitalizing on the market-driven opportunities evident in the sustainable energy sectors and transforming Bannock County into an energy leader will support our working families with a living wage and infuse cash into local economies. I urge our city and county officials to pursue this win-win opportunity with vision and vigor!

Chris Stevens grew up and attended college and graduate school in the Midwest. After living and working in Madison, WI., for 21 years, she moved to Washington State where she worked as a public school teacher and building administrator. She moved to Pocatello to finish her 25-year public school career and retire in the wide open spaces. She is now busily retired tending her expansive gardens, volunteering for local organizations, and enjoying the company of a great group of Pocatello friends.