An influx of geothermal companies eyeing Idaho for development has prompted state officials to tweak rules for leases on endowment lands, hoping to further benefit public schools.

The state Board of Land Commissioners supervises Idaho's endowment lands, which are managed for maximum profit over time and yield revenues that primarily benefit public schools.

The panel, which includes Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and four other elected officials, voted last week to declare the southern half of the state as a known geothermal resource area.

This designation will allow the state to auction off leases for geothermal resources on state lands in southern Idaho. Land board commissioners hope the change will mean more money for public schools.

A pair of northern Idaho lawmakers laid the groundwork for the designation two years ago, with a bill to promote all types of alternative energy development on state endowment lands, from wind on the plains to biomass in the forests.

"Anytime you do that on endowment lands, you win," said Rep. Eric Anderson, a Priest Lake Republican who co-sponsored the bill. "We've got to find other resources for schools, and I think this is a big part of that puzzle."

The land board commissioners approved the change at a time when the Idaho Department of Lands is being flooded with geothermal lease applications, said staffer Eric Wilson.

Just in the past six weeks, about 80 applications have been submitted for geothermal leases on state lands, the Spokesman-Review reports.

"The geothermal lease applications are continuing to arrive faster than we can evaluate them," Wilson said.

Geothermal, a time-honored source of continuous power, is ramping up across the West. California and Nevada are the country's leading producers of steam-powered electricity and the only two western states that have more near-market, reasonably priced geothermal power potential than Idaho, according to a Western Governors Association survey.

The Raft River U.S. Geothermal Services plant near Malta was a breakthrough for Idaho, Otter said.

"It proved what our potential is," Otter said. "We've probably got as much hot water under Idaho as any state in the Union except Hawaii, and that's great."


Information from: The Spokesman-Review,