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Why is Cleantech good for Idaho? 

What is Cleantech? Cleantech is a broadly inclusive term that refers to companies and technologies that create jobs and deploy new innovations that improve environmental and social sustainability.

Amber Bieg. Submitted photo

Why Idaho? To start, Idaho is rich in natural resources that make cleantech possible: sun, wind, minerals, available land and good soil.

Perhaps more importantly, Idaho is also rich in innovation, particularly in the renewable and battery industry. Idaho is stepping into the clean energy spotlight with startups like Joule CaseRetroluxClenera (acquired by Enlight), Inovus Solar (acquired by Solar One), Solar RoadwaysKore Power and Inergy. Idaho also leads with some of the nation’s top energy research institutions, such as Idaho National Laboratory (INL), leading research and development in batteries, solar and grid modernization.

Idaho is also rich with smart, talented people working on the world’s biggest energy problems. The Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES), a collaboration between INLBoise State UniversityUniversity of Idaho and Idaho State University, hosts over 8,000 researchers working to solve the greatest energy challenges. Also, Idaho hosts two large energy engineering firms, POWER Engineers and McMillan-Jacobs, which are both leading in the energy innovation space. Additionally, Idaho is host to more than a dozen B Corp companies — all of which focus on using business as a force for good.

To support these innovators and push for smart economic policy that will create jobs in Idaho, a group of business leaders and policy advocates formed the Idaho Chapter of the CleanTech Alliance in 2020. Idaho Chapter Chair and Retrolux CEO, Leif Elgethun, said “Cleantech makes sense in Idaho. We have all the ingredients to build a thriving clean energy industry that will create tens of thousands of additional living-wage jobs, protect our low cost of energy and ensure our water, air and land are clean for future generations.”

According to Idaho cleantech entrepreneurs, the biggest barrier to growth is access to capital. Around the world, we are seeing new companies bringing cleantech solutions at an increasingly rapid pace. China, France, Canada and others all invest in their cleantech startups. Here in Idaho, we leave those investments to the private sector, which is often unwilling to take the risk of early investment. Thus, the innovations that could grow here relocate to other places where capital can be accessed more easily.

Unless we consider more ways to invest in our cleantech startups, we will quickly be out shadowed by other regions. The Idaho Global Entrepreneurial Mission (iGEM) program has been an excellent example of what can be done with a relatively small amount of funding. With $1 million per year in funding, the iGEM program has funded 36 projects over the past eight years. However, these grants are limited to commercializing projects that start at Idaho universities and aren’t available to Idaho entrepreneurs not affiliated with a university.

Borrowing from an innovation fund model in British Columbia, Canada — the state of Idaho could set aside funding for low-interest innovation loans, managed through the Department of Commerce. The intent would be to support commercializing cleantech (this could also include clean ag-tech) innovations. This would be a competitive process with a huge boost to our economy — leading to a growth in tech jobs — the kind of jobs that lead to greater overall prosperity for everyone. If the program is successful, it should be repeated. In Idaho, startups account for a huge portion of job growth, according to Kauffman Indicators of Entrepreneurship. Can we turn a few of these cleantech startups into the next Micron or Simplot? Perhaps if we invest wisely.

With an abundance of wind, sun, affordable land, good academic institutions, support for tech and cleantech innovation, as well as a great quality of life, Idaho is well-poised to take the lead as the clean energy leader. Inc. Magazine predicts that Idaho will be the next Silicon Valley with the growth in technology startups. But do we really want to be “the next Silicon Valley?” Perhaps we can do better by investing in cleantech.

We have the key ingredients to build a prosperous clean energy and technology economy while staying true to Idaho’s core values — a sense of community, security, healthy lifestyle and stewardship of natural resources. While potatoes and microchips have been our legacy, maybe our future should be cleantech — supporting our microchips, food manufacturers and other industries for years to come.

— Amber Bieg is a partner at Warm Springs Consulting. She received her Master of Business Administration in sustainable management from Presidio Graduate School.

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