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Sustainable Idaho: Solar Energy

Giorgio Trovato

Last week, we introduced the topic of solar energy and the opportunities that Idaho State University’s ESTEC program offers to those interested in working with renewables. This week, we’ll continue to talk about solar energy, this time with Jared Hansen and Jordan Rodriguez from Idaho Power in addition to Brad Barrot, one of the partners at Big Dog Solar. We focused on three aspects of solar energy: current solar capacity in Idaho, motivation for solar installation, and disposal issues.

First, we asked Hansen how much of current energy demands are met by solar energy. While rooftop solar only accounts for a small fraction of all energy produced in Idaho, Idaho Power has contracts with commercial solar energy projects that have a combined capacity of 319 Megawatts. This is not including the 120 MW Jackpot solar project. For context, one megawatt of energy powers just under 150 homes in the state of Idaho; the total capacity of all these projects will provide the equivalent of Pocatello’s power needs.

Beyond the private sector, solar is becoming a popular energy source for the general public. But is that mainly because of financial motives? Rodriguez notes that, in general, people in Idaho aren’t getting solar panels to save money since energy here is already fairly cheap. Instead, motivation likely stems from environmental concern or the desire for energy independence.

That said, solar can still save you money in Idaho if you’re willing to play the long game according to Idaho Power, but it depends on where you live and your energy consumption. According to Solar Reviews’ calculations, the average payback period in the Pocatello area is only about 6-8 years. Another motivating factor Barrott brought up is the sense of security that comes from owning solar in combination with batteries. Barrott highlights that while complete energy independence has some financial hurdles, current investment in energy storage and battery research will make this more affordable in the near future. It appears that storage capacity is not far behind the solar energy boom. Our ever expanding solar capacity brings Idaho much closer to addressing climate change and increasing sustainability.

So now we’ve overviewed solar capacity in Idaho and what motivates folks to invest in solar. However, there remains the question of disposal. What happens to solar panels once they reach end of life? And do different types of panels have to be disposed of differently? It turns out, thin film panels use more harmful chemicals than crystalline structure panels, but crystalline structure still require some toxic heavy metals in their production. When placed in a landfill both types pose a risk of leaching unwanted chemicals into the environment. The first alternative that comes to mind is recycling, so we asked Barrot about our capacity to recycle panels right now.

Like Barrot explained, most solar panels are still in operation so there haven’t been too many chances to implement a large-scale recycling system. Overall, while solar panels will help decrease greenhouse gas emissions, the chemical and heavy metal byproducts and challenges with recycling leave concerns about disposal which cannot yet be addressed through recycling. But the industry is determined to remedy these issues through research and development as it grows in the transition away from fossil fuels.

We have learned in our exploration of both nuclear and solar that no energy sources come without their benefits and drawbacks. A carbon free world must include not only ambition but also consideration of new hurdles during the green transition. Check back next week as we begin exploring Idaho’s drought.


Idaho Power Solar Capacity:

How Many Homes a MW Can Power:

Solar Panel Types Comparison:

Ailie Maclean was born and raised in Alaska but moved to Kimberly, Idaho right before high school. Ailie is an undergraduate Political Science and Global Studies major at ISU. She is going into her last year at ISU as Vice President of Idaho State’s student government, ASISU, and has served as an Honors Program Mentor, Communications Envoy, and ASISU Supreme Court Justice in past years. In her free time she enjoys reading, longboarding, hiking, watching anime, and swimming in unique places (Silfra in Iceland for example). Ailie plans on studying environmental, or some variation of international law, after taking a gap year to travel and work abroad.
Eizaak Jordan was born and raised in McCall, Idaho. He spent summers in Yellowpine, Idaho, near the Frank Church Wilderness Area. Eizaak's days were characterized by interacting with the natural world in both locations, curating his passion for Idaho’s ecosystems. He is currently an ISU Political Science student and President of ISU’s Sustainability Club. After graduation, he will be applying for a graduate program in environmental politics, which will hopefully open opportunities to gain full employment doing environmental advocacy. Eizaak spends his free time reading, cooking, and fly fishing.