The Barn at Net-Zero
What: a presentation on small-scale energy generation using hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind.
When: Thursday, May 2 from 10AM to 11:30
Where: Valley County Courthouse (Commissioner’s meeting room)
219 N. Main St., Cascade
Short Description: a student team from the University of Idaho Electrical Engineering department will present findings on their project to use hydro, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind.sources to turn one of the Horsethief Y-camp buildings into a demonstration project.
This project is supported by the Valley County Economic Development Council as a means to explore job generation through use of local energy sources and import substitution.
Why is this important for Valley County’s economy?
Households spend anywhere from $60 to $200 per month on electricity. That is just an average; spending in the summer is usually minimal, but energy use in the winter can be a financial drain, especially for households that live in poorly insulated homes. All said and done we easily spend $10 million per year on energy in Valley County. What if we could generate a tenth of that energy ourselves? If we could generate just $1 million worth of usage through the use of our abundance in hydro, biomass, geothermal and other renewable resources? Well, you may say, unless we can do it cheaper than Idaho Power (which seems not very easy; ask Adams County!), it truly does not matter. That is not exactly true, however. If we spend $1 million to buy “something” from outside of Valley County, someone, or some company out there does all the work and makes all the investments to supply us. If, instead, we would spend that same $1 million within Valley County, the jobs and investments to generate that “something” will benefit our local economy. This mechanism to generate local jobs and economic growth by switching to local supplier is called import substitution. This, of course, only works for goods or services that can be produced competitively in the local region; buying local, after all, only works if there is no significant cost, quality or service advantage to going elsewhere. In spite of that, import substitution is a vastly underutilized tool in economic development and has started to receive more attention in recent years.
The building of a knowledge “ecosystem”
If we do something for the first time it takes a lot of effort and mistakes. But, given enough practice, most endeavors become easier and take progressively less time; we build tools to help us, find better ways to accomplish the same. This is such a common experience that companies actually predict, on average, some 20% less effort to doing something with every doubling of the cumulative experience. That means that, if the first time it took 10 hours to finish, the 100th time will only take a good two hours, and after 1,000 times it may get done in about an hour. This is just a rule of thumb, but it shows that experience is very important to become competitive.
So what does this mean for local energy generation? Realistically, we cannot compete with Idaho Power; they have a tremendous advantage with respect to experience and scale. We need their infrastructure, we need their help.
They also have obstacles, however. Transportation over long distances creates huge power losses and are expensive; unpredictable high peak-usage requires to always have lots of power available even if the total usage is low. There are therefore situations where it is advantageous to generate power locally. Even with those opportunities, however, we need to have the knowledge and skills to take advantage of them. Where does hydro make sense, where biomass? What trades and skills do we need to harness geothermal energy; how do our plumbers learn about heat-pumps, our architects about designing homes to take advantage of them? We need to build a local “ecosystem” of trades and specialists, knowledge and skills to create a local advantage and a local economy. And we need to learn it fast to be competitive.
Here is where the Barn-at-Net-Zero student project comes in – the students call it “Project Green”, by the way. The project’s target is the “barn” facility of the Y-camp at Horsethief reservoir. This building was, until the opening of the new Pavilion, the central service center of the camp serving dinner for up to 275 camp residents. A team of UI Electrical Engineering undergraduate students (Michael West, Matthew Baker, Issac Cowger, Gage Gallagher) under supervision of graduate student Rishabh Jain and with Professor Herbert Hess as adviser created an implementation plan to power the barn with local renewables. This plan will make the barn into a facility that, on average, will generate as much power from local renewable energy sources as it will need. Sometimes it needs more than can be generated, in which case it needs to draw power from the net; other times it will overproduce power which it will put back into the net – hence the term Net-Zero.
The project’s results are intended to be our training wheels; the scaffolding to build the next floor. The results are primarily an educational tool: a demonstration for camp-youth as well as Valley County community on how distributed energy generation can be sustainable and what is needed from the local economy. The first report of the student team can be downloaded from this link: Project GREEN – Proposal.
 Cooke S., and Watson P. “A Comparison of regional export enhancement and import substitution economic development strategies.” J. Reg. Anal. Policy Journal of Regional Analysis and Policy 41, no. 1 (2011): 1–15.