Fish-friendly power: Lonesome Larry explores clean energy alternatives

Lonesome Larry visits a wind farm near Pocatello, Idaho.

Good news, Idahoans! You’ve won the clean-energy lottery. As the world attempts to move to more environmentally friendly energy sources, there are few places with more potential than Idaho to develop abundant power with low carbon emissions and an otherwise small environmental impact.

Many traditional methods of producing power, such as coal-fired power plants, produce carbon emissions that contribute to climate change. Higher global temperatures will affect salmon in several ways: reduced snowpack (and therefore reduced stream flows), more severe storms and floods, warmer water, and ocean acidification are just a few of the problems that may result from a warmer climate.

In the northwest, a large percentage of power is generated by hydroelectric dams, which produce no carbon emissions but are lethal to migrating fish. The four dams on the lower Snake River produce relatively little power for the region–less than four percent during peak production.This is energy for which alternatives and conservation measures can easily pick up the slack.

As the 13th windiest state in the nation, Idaho has enormous potential for wind power. Wind is is plentiful, renewable, widely distributed, clean, and uses little land. Windmills are fairly quiet and can be placed in fields that are also used for crops or grazing. Like many man-made structures, wind mills can pose a problem for bats and birds, but their environmental impact is still low compared with other types of power generation.

Wild salmon and wind energy work together well in the Northwest, as sustainable resources and job creators.  But the Obama administration’s present management of the Columbia and Snake Rivers doesn’t reflect this natural partnership, thus needlessly pitting wind energy and salmon recovery against each other.  Conservationists are working to change that.  Federal policy should keep salmon swimming, wind turbines turning, and jobs from both growing.

Although currently used on a smaller scale, solar power is another clean energy resource readily available in Idaho. For the time-being, solar panels are expensive to build and take up more space than windmills, but solar energy produces no carbon emissions and is more predictable than wind energy. Idaho also boasts abundant geothermal power, which uses hot water naturally present underground to generate power from steam. This method of power generation has a low environmental impact, but not every place in the world has geothermal potential. Luckily, Idaho sits on a geothermal hotspot and contains more hot springs than any other state in the continental U.S.

There may be no perfect energy source–every type of power generation has its pros and cons–but it is important to understand that the Northwest has a lot of choices, and Idahoans do not have to give up their salmon to have electricity in the twenty-first century. By understanding and investing in its many options, it is possible for Idaho to find an energy solution that works for both its people and its environment.

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