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As lawmakers chart Utah’s energy future, Dems want a seat at the table

Democratic Sen. Nate Blouin is running bills to bolster the state’s electrical grid and geothermal energy industry during this year’s legislative session, Feb. 1, 2024.
Sean Higgins
Democratic Sen. Nate Blouin is running bills to bolster the state’s electrical grid and geothermal energy industry during this year’s legislative session, Feb. 1, 2024.

“Energy Week” at the Utah Legislature is coming to a close. GOP lawmakers have introduced a suite of bills that address everything from the state's overall energy policy to infrastructure and clean energy. But some Democrats across the aisle want influence in that process, too.

Sen. Nate Blouin said it’s frustrating to see his minority colleagues not more involved in the conversations around energy.

“There's a perception that Democrats are all about the Green New Deal and whatever that might be, that could be all sorts of different things,” he said. “But the reality is I just want to see a cleaner system that's still extremely reliable.”

Blouin has a professional background in renewable energy and is running bills this session that would bolster geothermal energy and reinforce the electrical grid — two areas where he believes there is room for bipartisanship compromise. Rather than “a whole conversation about renewable energy,” he sees the safer path as one that takes “small bites out the apple” on projects the supermajority can agree with.

Like Blouin, Senate Minority Leader Luz Escamilla says there is more than one solution for the state’s energy needs, especially on distribution.

“We want to see more investment in infrastructure for the grid,” she said at a Jan. 16 news conference. “Our grid is old and it's not sustainable if we continue that process, so we want to see a little bit of everything in the conversation.”

When it comes to grid enhancements, Democrats are focused on technological improvements that are geared toward helping the existing infrastructure be more efficient rather than a full overhaul.

“It’s basically a suite of different technologies that are either physical or software-type things that the utilities can use to boost the actual capacity of their lines,” Blouin said. “It can figure out how to best route energy around the grid so that you're not seeing constraints in specific places, you're getting the energy to where it needs to go in the most efficient way possible.”

His proposal is not dissimilar to work currently underway at the University of Utah that is exploring ways to bolster the western United States’ grid against adverse weather like heat waves and cold snaps.

Although Blouin has not coordinated with university researchers on his bill, he did say his work is “definitely in that same space.”

GOP-backed bills this session have prioritized “energy independence” and propping up the declining coal industry. Despite leadership’s intentions, some experts have warned of unintended consequences if those policies are taken to the extreme.

“Our primary concern is that these bills will increase costs and risks to ratepayers by undermining least cost, least risk, utility system planning,” Sophie Hayes, an attorney for the nonprofit Western Resource Advocates, told the House Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Committee on Jan. 29. “When you're directing the Public Service Commission to give priority to resources that may cost more relative to a different portfolio of resources, rates will go up.”

Republicans have also voiced concern about the impacts early closures of coal plants could have on neighboring communities. With Rocky Mountain Power set to close its two Utah coal-fired power plants earlier than expected, the question then becomes what happens to those communities and the jobs that sustain them?

“It's not either-or,” said Blouin. “We can move forward with a cleaner system and also keep people employed in these communities and give them agency in those decisions.”

Although no final decisions have been made by Rocky Mountain Power, the Hunter and Huntington coal plants in Emery County have been identified as possible locations for future nuclear-powered infrastructure.

Rocky Mountain Power said it expects to start training employees on new technologies in 2027.

“I think we all want the same things,” Blouin said. “We all want reliable energy, we want affordable energy and I certainly want clean energy as well. And I think that's where the market is headed.”

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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