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Campaign ad boasts of Otter’s energy focus

Stimulus-funded solar project cited as state’s leadership

BOISE – Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s latest campaign commercial focuses on alternative energy, touting Idaho’s moves in that direction.

But the Otter campaign could not document Otter’s claim in the ad that he’s made the state one of the nation’s leaders in alternative energy research, and national statistics show otherwise.

The ad began running Thursday across Southern Idaho and in the Lewiston market but hasn’t yet launched farther north; it’s running in rotation with Otter’s earlier ad, which also hasn’t launched in North Idaho.

Here’s a look at the claims in the ad:

CLAIM: Otter says, “We’re told never to look into the sun, but if we could, do you know what we’d see here in Idaho? Jobs. Lots of them.”

CONTEXT: Otter cites the Hoku polysilicon plant going up in Pocatello, which produces materials used in the solar energy market, and a Micron Technology project in the works, along with a $2.7 million grant program to install solar panels on some schools and a federal stimulus-funded solar project in McCall. The Hoku plant has hired its first group of operators and hopes to employ 200 at full production in 2011. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Idaho produced no measurable percentage of its electricity from solar in 2008 and produced just a tiny amount of solar energy in 2009.

CLAIM: Otter says in the ad, “I’ve made alternative energy research a top priority, and we’re among the leaders in the nation.”

CONTEXT: The Otter campaign couldn’t cite any documentation that Idaho is a leader in alternative energy research. Idaho’s rank for installed renewable energy capacity excluding hydropower: 36th in the nation, or 20th if that figure is viewed on a per-capita basis. That’s according to figures released in August by the U.S. Department of Energy, which are based on 2009 data.

Idaho ranked 25th for wind energy, 33rd for solar, fifth for geothermal (though 41 states had none), 25th for biomass, and seventh for hydropower.

In 2008, Idaho ranked seventh in the nation for the percentage of its electricity generated from renewables, but almost 100 percent of that was from conventional hydropower, which Idaho has used for a century – not from new research into alternatives. In that year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, Idaho produced 0.7 percent of its electricity from geothermal, none from solar, 1.7 percent from wind and 3.8 percent from wood waste.

Paul Kjellander, head of Otter’s Office of Energy Resources, said, “I think leadership is in the eye of the beholder. … ‘Leader’ means moving in the right direction. Where we’re at today, we are in a leadership role in a big way.”

Though Idaho is home to one of 12 national laboratories where federally funded energy research is conducted, the leading states for renewable energy excluding hydropower in 2009 were, in order, Texas, California, Iowa, Oregon, Minnesota, Washington, New York, Illinois, Oklahoma and North Dakota, according to the DOE. On a per-capita basis, North Dakota led, followed by Wyoming, Vermont, Iowa, Oregon, South Dakota, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas and Montana.

The Energy Information Administration also reports that California generates more electricity from geothermal, solar and wind energy sources combined than any other state, and that Washington leads the nation in hydroelectric power generation and in generation from all renewables including hydro.

Otter has expressed doubts about solar and other renewables in recent years, according to the Associated Press, saying nuclear energy is the clean energy alternative he backs.

Otter noted that he established the Office of Energy Resources his first year in office, which set up the “Strategic Energy Alliance” and associated task forces; he also signed tax breaks for geothermal and wind power producers, and the state contributes $1.5 million a year toward salaries at the Center for Advanced Energy Studies in Idaho Falls.

CLAIM: Otter says in the ad, “Today we have projects in wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and nuclear, and we’ve just scratched the surface. So the next time you’re enjoying a sunny day, just remember, those rays are shining jobs on Idaho’s future.”

CONTEXT: It’s true that Idaho has projects in the works in all those areas. Kjellander noted a recent groundbreaking for a major wind project and said he believes Idaho was smart to refrain from setting required standards for utilities to ramp up renewable energy use, as other states have done. “Resources are coming on as we need them, as we can afford them, and we’re integrating them rationally,” he said. “That is a smart way to do it.”

He added, “We have some of the lowest-priced electricity in the nation. That is our comparison point. The reason our rates aren’t as high as other states is that we are managing our resource development.”

ALLRED RESPONSE: Otter’s Democratic challenger, Keith Allred, accused Otter of trying to take credit for energy developments that were spurred by federal stimulus dollars. “Only a career politician like Otter would bash the federal government one day, then take credit for federal spending on the next,” Allred said in a statement. “Idaho’s alternative energy entrepreneurs are succeeding in spite of, not because of, the efforts of the Otter administration.”

IMAGES: The ad features Otter speaking with a backdrop of the Boise foothills, a scene that was filmed outside the former J.R. Simplot home that’s now Idaho’s official governor’s residence, though Otter doesn’t live there. It also features stock footage of windmills, high-tech production, solar panels, a geothermal plant and power transmission lines.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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