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Utah Communities Moving Forward With Plans For Clean Energy Transition

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At least 16 of the original 23 communities that pledged to transition to 100% net renewable are moving ahead with the plan.

At the end of 2019, 23 cities and counties in Utah made an ambitious pledge to transition to 100% net renewable energy by the end of the decade.

It’s a plan participating city and county officials are calling a first in the country, paving the way for a partnership with the state’s largest energy utility, Rocky Mountain Power, to develop a greater arsenal of clean energy resources.

“If this program is successful, this will be the biggest reduction in emissions in state history,” said Michael Shea, environmental program manager for Salt Lake County. “It's an incredible amount of energy that we're looking at.”

Pamela Gibson, a council member in the small town of Castle Valley, said she was initially skeptical of the proposal, thinking it was unlikely to take shape in conservative-leaning Utah. But over the last year, she’s grown more confident watching the project’s leaders hash out a governance agreement for how the program will be managed and start to figure out how to pay the $700,000 in estimated startup costs.

“This is going to work,” Gibson said. “It's like being a powerful entity, like an Apple or a Google, where you can go and negotiate with a power company. The communities will be the ones directing what things to buy, where those things will be.”

So far, 14 of the original 23 communities have signed off on the governance agreement, Shea said. The others have until January 2022 to do so, though they could still opt out of the program later.

Gibson said she volunteered Castle Valley to serve as an “anchor community,” which will guarantee the upfront funding if the other communities don’t end up joining. That would nearly double the town’s original investment to a “whopping $413,” she said. By comparison, Salt Lake City — the largest entity in the group — will pay over $202,000 to participate.

The starting fees, however, don’t include building the renewable resources that will ultimately help provide the communities’ energy. Residents and businesses will pay for those through higher utility bills, but will have the option to opt out.

That’s been one of the primary concerns for city officials in Ogden, who signed on earlier in July but only after months of back and forth on whether the potential utility rate increases could place too much of a burden on residents.

Angela Choberka, an Ogden city council member, said she’s heard it’s possible rates could go down because of the decreasing cost of renewables, but she also wants to make sure low-income residents know they don’t have to participate if they can’t afford to.

“It is a little bit, you know, risk taking, thinking about how it moves forward,” she said. “But I think we're willing to put in the effort and the time and dedicate some resources to being part of the discussions and then see how it goes.”

The project still has a long road ahead, including approval from the Utah Public Service Commission and requests for proposals on specific renewable projects. Shea said there is no guarantee it all pans out as designed, but it’s also possible the energy goals could be met before 2030.

“It's as ontrack as you can get,” he said. ”The program is in state law. The structure’s there. And it's really just a matter of working out the details.”

Corrected: August 13, 2021 at 3:35 PM MDT
This story was corrected to reflect the number of communities that have signed on to the governance agreement to reach 100% net renewable energy. 
Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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