Out of the Darkness
A Christmas Eve blackout raises the stakes on the Valley’s energy supply
Illustration Rick Vitullo
A) Ventilate: Adequate attic ventilation can provide for a cooler home in the summer and fewer ice dams in the winter.
G) Wrap: In our climate zone, a permeable moisture vapor house wrap can minimize mold in wall assemblies. It’s like a GorTex™ jacket for your home.
In the first minutes of sudden darkness that followed the now infamous Wood River Valley Christmas blackout last year, nary a concern interrupted the holiday cheer. But behind the merriment, a small crisis lurked. Perhaps someone strung up too many blinking lights, or had one too many Christmas hams in the oven. Somehow, the Valley’s power source had failed.
A half hour in, partygoers switched to candle mood-lighting, donned parkas and discussed hitting the Pioneer Saloon—the only restaurant in town with a generator. Two hours in, unenlightened by phone calls to Idaho Power, most nestled into uneasy sleep. Whole families spooned in their living rooms to share body heat. By morning, the hospital was operating normally with generators, and Those With Jets flew elsewhere. Emergency dispatchers fielded questions about food spoilage and doled out advice on where people should gather as the disaster continued.
Twelve hours in, hotel guests huddled around lodge fireplaces, and locals sought out friends with woodstoves. City council members fielded questions at city halls, but the ultimate question remained unanswerable to everyone including Idaho Power Company: When will the power come back on? No one could say. Anxiety hung over the frigid Valley. Finally, twenty-three hours in, the lights flicked back to life for most residents, and more than twenty-six hours after it began, everyone regained power.
Throughout the fiasco, discussions skipped beyond generators to the full array of energy efficiencies on the market today. Utility providers and governments shifted their focus to long-term planning and more proactive community education about our power supply.
Suddenly, dinner table talk about the power grid wasn’t so boring. Two transmission lines run north from Bellevue into Hailey, but from Hailey north, they merge into one. When one southern line fails, the other can only carry the load for a short while before outages occur. Last Christmas, when extreme cold, heavy usage and ice on the line overloaded the system, the southern lines carried power for about a half hour after the north Valley went dark.
The blackout provoked a slew of complaints. But what few knew was that Idaho Power was already working on preventing just this sort of ordeal; the utility had been planning a second north Valley line since 2007. The second line is expected to parallel Highway 75 and will provide redundancy to a system that has no backup and should be complete by 2012. A separate transmission line has also been proposed from Hailey south to Shoshone. But until either line is reality, it remains residents’ responsibilities to limit their usage and ready themselves in the event of another power outage.
“The average square footage of homes in Blaine County is more than twice that of the national average,” said Shana Sweitzer, a planner for Blaine County. “We use six times more gas per capita than anywhere else in Idaho.” This pace, combined with the fact that Idahoans enjoy some of the lowest electricity and natural gas costs anywhere in the country, has led to consumption with little conscience. Radiant-heated 1,500-square-foot driveways contribute mightily to these statistics, but cheap energy has blinded us all.
When the cheap energy ran out last Christmas, officials were as unprepared as their constituents. “It cannot happen again,” said Baird Gourlay, Ketchum City Councilman.
Conservation and efficiency became high priorities. Idaho Power spokesman Dan Olmstead estimated the company can save 200 megawatts, or more than three times the current electricity demand of north-Valley customers, by convincing homeowners and businesses to use the company’s array of energy conservation programs. Viewed in this light, the great Christmas blackout of 2009 might have been avoided if compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or light emitting diods (LEDs), which use a quarter the electricity of incandescent bulbs, had decked the Valley’s halls.
While switching out bulbs can bring a return on one’s investment in three to five months, individuals can do even more. The Valley is a nurturing place for energy entrepreneurs.
“They don’t call this place Sun Valley for nothing,” said Billy Mann, owner of Sagebrush Solar and a software engineer by training. Mann has spent the last few years convincing his customers of the value of solar-heated water in a design he says is the most efficient and cost-effective system for Idaho’s climate.
“Because of our inordinate number of sunny days and our altitude, we receive more solar radiation on a daily basis than any location in Florida, the Sunshine State,” Mann said. He believes there are fewer than one hundred examples of solar photovoltaics (sun-generated electricity), solar thermal (sun-generated hot water) and geothermal (ground-source heat) in the Valley. Such systems, if correctly designed and maintained, could provide home and business owners with less costly energy than comparable arrangements that tap natural gas or electricity.
Guyer Hot Springs, a geothermal hot spring on Warm Springs Creek west of Ketchum, demonstrates the benefits of geothermal heat for a handful of residents in the city’s Warm Springs neighborhood. The sole example of the Valley’s geothermal resources at work, the springs’ 160-degree waters service sixteen nearby homes. A grant proposal is in process to expand this service and further reduce Ketchum’s carbon footprint while also prominently showcasing Idaho’s geothermal potential.
As much as the future is about seeking new energy sources, it is also about finding efficiencies in the resources we have. Energy audits are pedal strokes in that direction.
Last fall, Councilman Gourlay partnered with fellow Ketchumite Harry Griffith to launch their energy auditing business, E=MC2. Certified through the Building Performance Institute, the company’s services are presented in layman’s terms—save X dollars by conserving Y energy in Z amount of time. Audits cover topics like air leaks, heating, ventilation, building structure and electrical systems. An energy audit can illuminate simple facts of our daily life. How much energy does it take to make the morning coffee, vacuum the carpet, or just flip a light switch?
Gourlay dreams of the day when people will comprehend everyday energy use as naturally as our shorthand for gasoline consumption, MPGs, or miles per gallon. Until then, see how many of your friends know what a BTU is. Gourlay envisions a broader overhaul where each square foot of a building can be quantified with a BTU, which is, if you’re still curious, the unit of heat required to raise one pound of water one degree Fahrenheit (also known as a British Thermal Unit).
“We need to tie together the green community,” said Josh Solly, who owns the Ketchum Electric Company, a small consulting firm that offers a suite of renewable energy services. “The status quo is doing nothing but damaging the environment,” he said. Solly would prefer to see Valley communities set examples of what can be done with renewable energies.
As small businesses nudge Valley residents toward a more sustainable future, the public sector and big business are doing their part, too. Initiatives by local governments include mandating energy-efficient construction.
“Buildings account for 38 percent of the U.S.’s overall energy consumption,” Sweitzer said. Blaine County is set to adopt Home Energy Rating System performance levels as part of a program called Build Smart, a county-wide initiative launched in January 2009 to help conserve energy.
Federal rebates offer more incentives. Those who retrofit their homes with energy-efficient windows and insulation may qualify for a U.S. Department of Energy tax credit for 30 percent of the cost, up to $1,500, through December 31, 2010. This includes solar, wind, geothermal and residential fuel cell systems.
Some Blaine County communities recently earned a Federal Government Energy Efficiency Community Block Grant. With this endowment, property owners who pursue energy audits may be reimbursed for their efforts.
The Valley is a lifestyle-driven community, but our choices often overlook obvious opportunities to conserve. Sweitzer put it this way: “We need more supply, but the cheapest alternative is to reduce demand and conserve.”
The Wood River Valley can still light the way down the path toward conscious energy-consumption. With a surplus of innovative individuals working together toward this shared goal, cold Christmas mornings will remain the stuff of days gone by.