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Utah has a lot to do if it’s going to move away from coal-fired power

Employees of Sawtooth Caverns walk in front of transmission towers at the Intermountain power plant in Delta, Utah, June 22, 2022. In three years, the power lines will start being used to transport power generated with hydrogen to consumers in California and elsewhere.
Rick Bowmer
Employees of Sawtooth Caverns walk in front of transmission towers at the Intermountain power plant in Delta, Utah, June 22, 2022. In three years, the power lines will start being used to transport power generated with hydrogen to consumers in California and elsewhere.

Take a second to imagine what an ideal future in Utah might look like.

The air is clear. Inversion is minimal. Almost everyone drives electric cars. And power plants that once burned fossil fuels have been decommissioned.

According to the latest report from the International Energy Agency, renewables are set to overtake coal as the world’s main source for electricity by 2025. Even as that shift inches ever closer, the majority of the power generated in Utah still comes from coal.

But it is happening. A solar farm in Tooele County is expected to come online in 2023 to serve places like Salt Lake City and Summit County. Out in rural Delta, next door to the Intermountain power plant, a project is underway to swap out the coal for hydrogen. And the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act created incentives to further invest in renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

While a future of electric cars and renewable energy as the norm might sound nice, a lot needs to happen before that’s a reality.

“It’s certainly true that if everybody bought and tried to charge their electric car tomorrow, we could have a real problem,” said Rob Godby, an associate professor of economics at the University of Wyoming.

The increased power needed charge EVs will require many households to install enhanced electrical wiring. Structural changes to the nation’s grid will also be necessary.

“You need local upgrades and then we need those ‘backbone upgrades,’ if you want to call them that. The larger transmission system,” Godby said. “These are the wires you see as you’re traveling the country on those very large steel gantry-like systems.”

The problem is that existing transmission lines were built where they are for a reason.

“It’s really an analogy to the 50s, 60s through the 70s when those coal assets were built,” said David Eskelsen, a spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power. “They were located where the fuel source was and transmission was used to get the energy to customers,”

Rocky Mountain Power provides electricity to many of Utah’s residents, and the problem, said Eskelsen, is that sites ripe for renewable energy infrastructure today might be nowhere near current transmission lines.

Take a sunny valley perfect for solar panels. It might be hundreds of miles away from the nearest transmission lines able to carry that energy to customers. New lines would have to be built to get that power to customers.

But building new power lines is easier said than done.

Something that could slow that process down is the National Environmental Policy Act. The 1970 law requires thorough environmental reviews and impact studies before a project that needs federal permits or other approvals can get built.

Power lines span across large swaths of land. With about 42% of Utah being public land managed by the federal government, those environmental rules will likely be a part of any future project.

And the process can take years.

“We’re just now building a transmission line in Utah that I was working on as a county commissioner in 2006/2007,” said Utah Gov. Spencer Cox. “If you really care about the climate and you care about reducing emissions, we have to find ways to greatly increase the speed at which we’re able to build these transmission lines.”

Permitting reform was initially part of the deal struck to pass the Inflation Reduction Act. Since then, it has been pulled from other legislation, so the future of reform is still unclear.

Utah Republican Sen. Mitt Romney said a lack of cooperation between the GOP and Democrats has stalled addressing permitting in Congress.

“The better way to get things done … is by putting a group together and negotiating something that's good for both points of view,” Romney told Washington Post Live on Dec. 8. “The Democrats want to pass [West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s proposal] and force us to accept it. The better way to get permitting reform is to all come together and negotiate their parts of [Manchin’s plan] that Republicans don't like.”

Democratic State Sen. Nate Blouin’s professional background is in renewable energy. He wants permitting to be a priority for both parties in Congress.

“I think there are some pretty common sense things we can do there,” he said. “But that could be a bipartisan issue, too. I mean, Republicans have expressed a lot of interest in working on permitting, too.”

Progressive lawmakers have also put up roadblocks to permitting reform. Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly stood against streamlined permits since the IRA was passed this summer.

For Blouin, the future of energy in Utah is a mixed bag — and it might change.

“Whatever makes sense in the moment, you know, we're going to lean into that,” said Blouin. “And right now I think that's going to look like a ton of new solar, a ton of new energy storage, you know, both batteries and pumped hydro projects that are going to be thousands of megawatts and providing all sorts of power.”

Godby said it’s not the technology that matters, it’s the outcome.

“There’s a lot of different technology pathways to get to a carbon outcome that’s consistent with avoiding the worst of climate change,” he said.

For now, about two-thirds of the power generated in Utah comes from coal, but its days appear to be numbered.

Rocky Mountain Power says it is aggressively pursuing renewable energy sources like wind, solar and hydroelectric.

“In our planning in 2006-2007, we recognized that we probably wouldn’t be building any more new coal plants, ever,” said Eskelsen. “Starting about four, five years later, we began seriously talking about retirement dates of the existing coal unit fleet.”

Even so, coal could prove tough to quit.

While Rocky Mountain Power is phasing out some units at regional coal plants as soon as 2023, there are plans to keep others in its portfolio online as late as 2042.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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