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Business & Economy

18 Utah communities sign on to ambitious renewable energy pact

iStock Wind Turbines, Spanish Fork at sunset
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Getty Images/iStockphoto
Wind Turbines at Spanish Fork, Utah at sunset.

A program to transition 18 Utah cities and counties to 100% net renewable energy by 2030 is moving forward. The total would have been higher but several local governments backed out. Despite fewer participants, officials still say it still could be one of the largest efforts to reduce emissions in state history.

The program is expected to bring “several hundred” megawatts of renewable energy to the grid, according to Christopher Thomas, a climate & energy program manager for Salt Lake City. The communities would not run completely on clean energy, he said, but pool their resources in order to build enough renewable sources to offset their energy demand.

Twenty-three local governments had initially expressed interest, but five dropped out ahead of a recent deadline to participate. Officials in West Valley City, one of the larger municipalities to opt out, based their decision largely on concerns over energy reliability and the potential cost to residents.

The exit means the program’s “anchor communities” will need to pick up the lost shares of the $700,000 needed for startup costs, which include paying for program consultants and legal fees. Thomas said it should not significantly impact the eventual costs of building out the renewable energy sources and the potential increases in participants’ electric bills.

The count of participating communities is better than what organizers originally anticipated, he said, and beyond what’s needed to tap into “economies of scale.”

“If you have enough demand to support an 80-megawatt solar farm, that's going to be cheaper per unit of energy than if you could only build a 20-megawatt solar farm,” Thomas said. “The 18 that have joined is well beyond that size to where we can take advantage of that.”

Several of the primary questions about how the program will work have yet to be answered. Dan Dugan, chair of the agency overseeing the project, told state lawmakers Wednesday that the group is currently negotiating with Rocky Mountain Power on details such as how the rate structure will work and ways to mitigate the burden on low-income families.

Finished negotiations are expected by the end of the year when the agency will submit an application to the Utah Public Service Commission for approval. Communities will then have another chance to opt out, as will individual residents and businesses. Once the total number is finalized, the group will launch a bidding process to build the renewable sources, which could be a mix of solar and wind farms, geothermal and battery storage.

While many state lawmakers remain skeptical of transitioning too rapidly to renewable energy, citing the inability of solar and wind to generate electricity at all times, Rocky Mountain Power doesn’t expect the program to create reliability issues.

RMP spokesperson David Eskelson said the agency is required by law to provide “safe, reliable power at a reasonable cost.” About 30% of its energy currently comes from renewable sources and it has a reliability rating of 99.98%.

“We don't expect that to change,” he said. “We don't guarantee uninterrupted power, but we have a responsibility to have a highly reliable system. And whether we're getting power from traditional sources or newer sources, our responsibility is to integrate those new renewable sources in a way that maintains our reliability.”

The 18 communities involved in the program are the Town of Alta, Castle Valley, Coalville, Cottonwood Heights, Emigration Canyon, Francis, Grand County, Holladay, Kearns, Millcreek, Moab, Oakley, Ogden, Park City, Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, Springdale and Summit County.

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