Turning Risk into Opportunity: Building Resilience in Sun Valley

Article by Aimee Christensen, originally published on November 28 by Mountain Independent


Photo by Mike Lewelling

Sun Valley was founded in 1936 as the first destination ski resort in the country, a haven in the wilderness at the end of a Union Pacific rail line. Since then, it has become famous for its natural beauty and outdoor adventure opportunities, as well as for being a global hub of intellectual inspiration and innovation. In its finest moments, our little corner of the world feels absolutely idyllic.

But, in 2013, we faced a frightening reality check when the Beaver Creek fire scorched over 100,000 acres throughout the west side of the Wood River Valley including parts of iconic Bald Mountain. The blaze burned through Blaine County, choking visibility in Sun Valley down to one block, forcing evacuations and blocking both of the two roads out of the valley for a time. Ultimately, the fire caused $40 million in immediate economic losses.

The destruction shook our community awake to the many threats to our home. We were at risk, not only from direct shocks like fire, but from indirect, mounting stressors that were undermining us over time (as they were to most mountain towns): outdated water laws, extended drought, increasingly unpredictable weather, and domestic and international economic volatility. Our mountains, climate and relative isolation make Sun Valley a special place, but the same factors also leave the region vulnerable to shifts in the global economy, climate change and external disruptions to our imported food and energy.

And so we realized we needed to try to get ahead those problems in a comprehensive, systemic way.

To start, we turned to the Rockefeller Foundation which champions “resilience” as the critical underpinning for its economic development efforts globally, seeking to build, “the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change.”

Resilience has become a guidepost in Sun Valley, serving as a core planning principle that has moved us to seek out out weaknesses and work to turn them into strengths. In 2015, we founded the Sun Valley Institute, where I currently serve as director, to build resilience, to strengthen our community, identify regional economic and environmental risks, and to leverage policy leadership, public engagement and community investments to turn risks into opportunities.

We began by addressing how we were purchasing, consuming and producing energy: it was brittle and insecure, environmentally harmful, and economically a drain on our community.

Sun Valley is situated at the north end of a single transmission line, fed by two aging transmission lines, both to our south. This presents a great risk from outages, be it from wildfires or winter storms (many still remember Christmas of 2009, when a snow squall caused a 24-hour power outage that shut down our chair lifts and the spirits of our visitors in the midst of our holiday tourist high-season that is critical to our economy).

Given the risks this system posed, we asked if instead it could be an asset: could we invest locally to generate clean renewable electricity and increase our security, create local jobs, save money, and benefit our environment?

Central Idaho is blessed with just 10-percent less solar insolation than Texas, which meant that solar was a smart investment even with our snowy winters and lack of state policy support (we locals quip about solar “if we can do it in Idaho, we can do it anywhere”). After exploring our potential solutions with the Rocky Mountain Institute’s “Electricity Innovation Lab,” we hired our energy program manager, Katie Bray, who we met at the eLab and who had run eight “Solarize” programs elsewhere in the country. Bray had spent summers near Sun Valley and was eager to return.

We launched Solarize Blaine in early 2016. Although it was the first Solarize program in Idaho, with over 300 such programs across the nation, hosted primarily by nonprofits and municipalities, we knew it could produce results. To ensure our success, prior to launching our program, we reached out to our city and county decision makers to improve our solar permitting rules for home and business owners, both reducing the fees and shortening the wait time for project approvals.

We conducted a request for proposals, qualified installers (including agreement to local hiring minimums) and negotiated a reduced cost offering for installations by both home and business owners. We also identified the only solar incentive program in Idaho, a low-interest energy-specific loan offered by the state, and engaged a local bank to be the conduit for this offering.

Armed with reduced prices, a straightforward contract, qualified installers identified, and possible access to a low-interest loan along with a LOT of public outreach – posters, mailings, town hall and grocery store information sessions – our group-purchasing program led to over 250 inquiries and 41 residential and commercial solar systems installations.

In all, this was a five-fold increase in the number of installations from the previous year and over $1 million dollars was channeled directly into the local economy. The Blaine County solar industry now can’t keep up with demand, which has driven business mergers and acquisitions, and, in turn, a hiring spree.

From a liability undermining our quality of life and economy, our energy sector is becoming a source of quality local jobs, including for the 40% of our population that relies on public assistance to survive.

Looking to 2018, energy remains a centerpiece of our efforts: we are building a more comprehensive digital blueprint of our electricity system with the Idaho National Laboratory and we are collaborating with local leaders to identify critical infrastructure in Blaine County (such as fire and police stations, water systems, and hospitals) that will benefit most from cost-effective local backup systems (like solar-plus-storage).

Over time, working together, we can will build distributed energy resources and grow the efficiency of existing systems, with a network of renewable energy, battery storage, and electric vehicles. These upgrades will strengthen the reliability of our public services and also powerful new investment opportunities for private investors. The Institute will bridge the gap between public and private, providing the financial analysis, business models, project management support and potentially access to capital.

Along with energy, we have found similar risks and opportunities in our food system. Blaine County is in the top ten most expensive counties in the nation to buy food despite its abundance of arable land. This is partly attributed to the fact that we import 95% of our food and export 98% of what we grow, primarily alfalfa, cattle, and barley. This compromises our pocketbooks, water quantity and quality, and air quality, all while producing too few jobs and underusing a valuable asset: our productive land.

Recognizing this disconnect, our Local Food Alliance is working with major food buyers such as schools and restaurants to increase their sourcing of local foods, keeping our food dollars in our region. We are also collaborating with landowners to evaluate how to shift agricultural production from export crops to local food production, including potential private investments in solar greenhouses and geothermal greenhouses along with potential other income- and job-growth uses such as solar energy production, affordable and middle-income housing and conservation easements.

By taking on these energy and food projects, as well as many more, we have come to discover that resilience is a powerful lens through which to consider our economic development, turning our risks into opportunities.

To increase access to capital for investing in this resilient prosperity, the Institute has partnered with local investment expert Michael Shuman, author of The Local Economy Solution, to publish handbooks on local investment. The first shares how to self-direct personal IRA resources to local investments. And the next is the first in a series of state by state handbooks that takes in each state’s unique local investment opportunities and regulatory environment. Shuman’s model often offers low risk investments that offer viable returns on tangible projects that you can see, touch and evaluate right here at home.

We hope that this book, paired with the lessons we’ve learned from the Institute’s programs, can help other communities in the mountains and beyond to investigate their own risks and see if there might be way to turn them into opportunities.