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Western Grid: Debate Breaks Out On the Good And Bad

File: Utah Solar Energy Association
Some advocates of the expanded Western Grid say the share of solar and other alternative energy will grow.

How we get and use energy is changing fast in the West, and a debate is heating up about the best way to cut costs -- and pollution -- as part of the transformation.

The environmental group, Western Resource Advocates, backs the idea of updating the West’s power grid to give utilities more flexibility to tap into the lowest-cost energy sources -- almost minute-by-minute. WRA staff attorney Jennifer Gardner says Utah’s almost certain to benefit with cleaner air and lower rates.

“We realize this is a huge opportunity for renewables – not only in Utah but throughout the western U.S. And I really believe as the cost of renewable energy keeps coming down, this will also be seen in our rates.”

California has invited utilities across the West to join an expanded grid. Pacificorp, which operates in Utah, California and four other states, has been experimenting with the concept, and spokesman Paul Murphy says flexibility allows Wyoming wind, and California solar to play a bigger role in the day-to-day energy mix. He also says ratepayers will reap the rewards.

“It’s been a win as far as saving money and as far as increasing the use of renewable energy,” he says of an energy rebalancing arrangement that’s been in place since 2014.

Murphy cites one study that estimated savings up to $9 billion over two decades across the West.

But there are critics, including environmental groups, consumer advocates and even Utah Gov. Gary Herbert. He’s told California Gov. Jerry Brown in a letter that Utah must have a voice in how the grid operates.

And other states share that concern as they weigh the costs and benefits of altering energy networks, and the legislation and regulations that would be required to accommodate the changes. Practical implications like these are being discussed not only in Utah and California, but throughout the West in what’s expected to be a long and contentious debate.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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