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Sun Valley Institute Provides Bridges to Resiliency
Friday, June 29, 2018


Aimee Christensen travels around the country looking for the next best idea to improve food, power and other systems in the Wood River Valley.

On Wednesday she had only to point her electric car 114 miles down the road from Sun Valley to Burley for the next best idea.

Her destination: The regional landfill near Burley where she saw how workers had covered the landfill  to capture methane.

“They capture enough methane to power 2,000 homes,” she told about 60 people gathered at the Sun Valley Institute’s “Risk to Opportunity” Breakfast Thursday morning. “Three years after their initial investment it’s making money. That’s the kind of approach we’re using.”

Christensen started the Sun Valley Institute (for Resilience) in 2015 with some equally passionate comrades who wanted to find ways to make the Wood River Valley’s businesses, food and electrical supply more resilient in the face of cataclysmic events like the 2013 Beaver Creek Fire, which was for awhile the nation’s largest fire.

In just 20 weeks the Institute increased the number of solar installations in the valley fivefold over what had been installed the year before. It ratcheted up interest in electric cars. And it has staged three forums that have brought together leaders to exchange ideas about how to create a more resilient economy and environment locally and globally.

“Recently, I learned about Palouse chickpea farmers who are now making value-added hummus with their chickpeas. It’s that kind of work that keeps me passionate—meeting people who are doing these things but don’t know about each other and bringing them together to learn from each other,” she said.

On this particular morning Christensen and other were hoping to make the Sun Valley Institute itself more resilient, or financially self-sustaining, by asking breakfast attendees for contributions as inaugural members of the Sun Valley Institute Visionary Society.

Brooks Preston, a board member of the Sun Valley Institute for Resilience and a member of the board of directors for the World Policy Institute, noted that “cost” is not the right word to use when investing in resilience. “It’s an opportunity.”

Billy Mann, who founded Sagebrush Solar, recounted how doing business was “downright painful” the first few years. He started out installing a few systems a year, eventually growing to installing a system a month as projects like the solar panels on the city’s Ore Wagon Museum took shape.

But orders went “through the roof” when the Institute launched its Solarize Blaine program, providing robust financial incentives for valley residents to go solar. Now, he said, he puts in a system a week, having installed a major project at the Wood River Inn and a hydroponic greenhouse system the past year.

Today the Wood River Valley gets 1.4 megawatts from 230 solar installations, said Mann, whose business merged with the national solar energy company Altenergy, Inc. last year.

“Without Aimee and her staff and board there’s no way we could have gone to a system a day, he added. “There’s still tremendous amount that needs to be done—what we have is just a drop in the bucket.”

Christina Giordani said the Institute’s Local Food Alliance helped her connect with local food providers to procure fresh fruits and veggies to use in her Roadbars cocktails. The Alliance is a bridge between chefs and farmers and farmers and consumers, she added.

“Unfortunately, we import a lot of food when we don’t have to,” she said.

In fact, said Christensen, 95 percent of the food Sun Valley-area residents eat is imported. And 98 percent of food that grow locally is exported. Blaine County is the 10th most expensive county in the nation when it comes to securing food to eat, in part because of this imbalance.

Christensen paused, noting the fresh fruit, scrambled eggs, potatoes and muffins on everyone’s plates.

“Everything we ate for breakfast today was local except for the quinoa, and we’re working on that,” she said.

“If every person Blaine County spent $5 more a week on local food, the local farmers would make an additional $50 million a year,” she added.

Idaho got a D-plus from Climate Central’s States at Risk survey due to its leaders taking little or no action to address its high risk of drought and wildfire.

But the Sun Valley Institute’s Katie Bray is working with Idaho National Laboratory to produce a visual blueprint of the local energy system and to prioritize hospital and other services that need to keep running if the power grid were to go down.

“We’re a pioneer in that regard,” Bray said.

Institute leaders are also working to with land owners to find ways to be more innovative and optimize the use of their lands.

“They’ve helped open our eyes to new ways of living,” said State Sen. Michelle Stennett, who was among the breakfast attendees.

Kim Castellano said supporting the Institute is a no brainer: “You’re here in the valley because you want to be here—you love it here. And you know Aimee Christensen … is working hard to make it even better.”

SUN VALLY FORUM Showcases Innovators

The Sun Valley Institute’s 2018 Sun Valley Forum: Turning Risk into Opportunity will showcase leaders July 31-Aug. 2 who have the vision and courage to accelerate the world’s transformation to sustainable, secure economies and communities.

Speakers include Antarctica explorers Robert and Barney Swan; Rob Bernard, chief environmental strategist for Microsoft; Jeff Goodell, contributing editor to “Rolling Stone” magazine and author of “The Water Will Come;” James McMahon, co-founder of The Climate Service; Linda Sheehan, senior counsel to the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation; Steve Wysmuller, global lead meteorologist for IBM, and Kimi Werner, the U.S. National Spearfishing Champion.

This year’s event will also include an inaugural Youth Forum in partnership with the Environmental Resource Center for youth ages 5 through 13 on Aug. 1-2. And the forum will partner with the 5Point Film Festival on the evening of Aug. 3 to present meaningful adventure stories designed to inspire commitment to positive change.

For information, visit

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