The state's mountains of manure are fueling dreams of pipelines linking waste treatment facilities at dairies large and small to central refineries that produce natural gas pure enough for homes or cars.
State energy czar Paul Kjellander, who heads up Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter's Office of Energy Resources, is pushing a package of income tax credits, property tax waivers and other incentives in the 2009 Legislature starting Jan. 12 to transform Idaho's southern heartland into a methane Mecca.
The hope is that processed manure could be sold as plant bedding and dairies could also fire turbines, shooting electricity into the power grid. And they could sell carbon credits in schemes to slash greenhouse gas emissions.
"We can put together the right package and right mechanism to help move it along," Kjellander told The Associated Press. "You've got to have somebody locally who is ready to take the risk and move this forward. But the state can provide the right type of incentives."
Idaho, with 550,000 cows, is now America's No. 3 milk producer, trailing California and Wisconsin. Other states are also trying to whet potential manure investors' appetites.
Minnesota recently gave a farmer more than $200,000 to finance a project that returns unused electricity to its power grid. Washington offers sales tax exemptions for dairies that install so-called digesters, which converts methane from cow manure into electricity.
In Oregon, a utility and a environmental group are taking advantage of state energy tax credits to build a $1 million methane digester at the state's largest dairy. NW Natural and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation are building the facility at Threemile Canyon Farms in Boardman.
And in the midst of 2001's rolling blackouts, California set aside $10 million for "manure methane power production projects."
Idaho's measure would eventually allow counties not in the south, including depressed timber hamlets in the northern forests, to create alternative "energy enterprise zones" to assist companies in turning wood waste to energy.
With this pilot project focusing initially on the region around Twin Falls, however, Kjellander hopes to direct attention to where massive dairies have expanded en masse in recent years, lured by cheap land, cheap feed and utility costs that are just a third of California's.
Agriculture accounts for a third of U.S. methane released into the atmosphere. Methane, also from landfills, coal mines and oil refineries, is considered the No. 2 greenhouse gas contributing to global warming, after carbon dioxide.
The Idaho Conservation League has highlighted risks associated with Idaho's enormous dairy feedlots, including water quality threats and air pollution. The group supports Kjellander's bill.
"We're hoping the digesters will not only capture greenhouse gases, but also because of the way the system works, there will be additional controls of other air pollutants," said Courtney Washburn, from the environmental group's Boise office. "Hopefully, it will make the lives of the neighbors a lot easier."
Intermountain Gas Co., a privately owned natural gas utility headquartered in Boise that serves more than 275,000 customers, backs the plan, too.
The company, a unit of Montana-Dakota Utilities Co., gets its natural gas largely from reservoirs in Canada and beneath the Rocky Mountains, including Wyoming and Utah. Incentives could help dairies cut the cost of their gas to competitive levels, said Brent Wilde, a spokesman.
"We're charged with purchasing the least expensive gas we can get our hands on," he said. "Probably the biggest benefit is being able to use that methane for something useful, rather than letting it go into the atmosphere."
Minneapolis-based Cargill Inc. soon aims to sell electricity from its $8.5 million, 2.25 megawatt digester and generator facility at the 10,000-cow Bettencourt Dairy in Hansen to Idaho Power Co., the state's largest utility.
This is the agricultural conglomerate's first such project, but Cargill has another southern Idaho plant due to open in 2009. It's also exploring similar endeavors in neighboring Washington, Oregon, New Mexico, California, Texas, New York and Indiana, said Craig Maetzold, Cargill Environmental Finance's operations manager.
"We believe the credits in renewable energy are only going to increase in value in the future," Maetzold said.