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Mayor Biskupski Says SLC Candidates' Renewable Energy Goals Would Be Too Expensive

Photo of downtown Salt Lake City.
Brian Albers / KUER
Both of the candidates for Salt Lake City Mayor have said they would shift the city to 100% renewable energy well before the current deadline. But it's not clear what that would do to residents' power bills.

For years, Salt Lake City leaders have set aggressive goals to shift the city’s energy use to net-100% renewable sources. But the date of that goal becoming a reality has been a moving target, and current mayor Jackie Biskupski is warning that both of her potential successors’ ambitions to finalize the transition by 2023 is unrealistic. 

The Biskupski administration is aiming to complete the shift to renewable sources by 2030, but she said pushing the schedule up by seven years would raise residents’ power bills and force many to opt out of a new renewable energy program.

“We are moving Rocky Mountain Power to 2030 now because it won't cost the residents more money,” the mayor told KUER last week, adding that incremental improvements are more realistic. During her tenure as mayor, Biskupski, who is not seeking a second term, shaved two years off her original goal of 2032.

“Will that shift occur again? Probably, but I don't think it's going to jump from 2030 to 2023,” she said. 

The candidates vying to replace her, state Sen. Luz Escamilla and Salt Lake City Councilwoman Erin Mendenhall, have each said they think the next mayor can negotiate with Rocky Mountain Power to shift the city’s energy to renewable sources by 2023. The city’s contract with the utility is up for renegotiation in 2021.

As a city councilmember, Mendenhall is not privy to contract negotiations between the city and Rocky Mountain Power. She said she looked forward to learning more, but added that a 2023 goal isn’t unheard of — former mayor Ralph Becker had pushed for it at the end of his term.

As far as costs to ratepayers, “those are serious conversations that we will have to have with the community,” Mendenhall said. “How urgent of a need do our residents feel like it is? Do we want to pay more for power? How does that equitably distribute across a city that has a big spectrum of income ranges?”

Her opponent, Luz Escamilla, also said costs are a concern but sounded more optimistic that the city can negotiate reasonable rates, calling the timing of the city’s next contract negotiation “perfect.”

“We can’t have this be a burden on our residents, but I think there are mechanisms to get us to a place where it will not be a burden and costly,” she said. “Part of it is a negotiation tool.” 

Ratepayers in Salt Lake City and other cities and counties that sign onto a new renewable energy program with Rocky Mountain Power will “almost certainly” see an increase in their monthly power bills, said spokesman Spencer Hall, though he could not say by how much.

The program was created earlier this year and symbolizes an agreement between a handful of cities – including Salt Lake City — and Rocky Mountain Power. As the utility expands its renewable energy portfolio, local governments can sign onto the agreement to shift their net energy use away from fossil fuels, but residents will have an option to opt out.

Salt Lake City, Park City, Summit County, Moab and Cottonwood Heights have so far enlisted in the program, and Hall said he expects a couple more cities go join by the deadline at the end of the year.

Hall also could not say whether Salt Lake City residents would face an additional rate increase if the city pushed its renewable energy goals up to 2023 — or how much it might cost — but he hinted that there would be hurdles.

“We’ve invited all the mayoral candidates to work with us as well and get familiar with how it works and what the obstacles are for getting it sooner,” Hall said.

Both mayoral candidates acknowledged Biskupski’s work on the issue and said whether or not the 2023 goal pans out, the outgoing mayor has put the city’s next leader in a good position to make significant gains on renewable energy use in the coming years.

“There is a lot of appetite” for shifting away from fossil fuels, Escamilla said. “Salt Lake City is in a good place.”

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