Legislature advances green agenda

Published March 23, 2009 12:49 am

Renewable energy » Supporters avoid science debates by focusing on economics
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Moab may have parlayed its purchases of wind energy to claim the title of Utah's first Blue Sky Community, but San Juan County could soon be the city's green power source.

That's the way San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams teases Moab Mayor Dave Sakrison, and it pleases Adams that a pair of new Utah laws could help his joke come true.

A retired junior high school science teacher and conservative politician, Adams has been a quiet if incongruous supporter of Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s four-year effort to get Utah lawmakers to face both the necessity and rewards of developing the state's vast solar, wind and geothermal energy resources.

Rural areas, especially those like San Juan County that can't depend on coal, oil or gas for jobs, stand to benefit the most, said Adams, whose support for the projects often cast him as a black sheep.

"With the Obama administration putting so much money into renewables, we think we're in the catbird seat," he said.

On the last day of the state legislative session, a few hours before the bills finally passed, the ebullient catbird himself reminded reporters that four years ago, nobody was talking about efficiency, renewables or greenhouse gas emissions. "Now, it's a centerpiece in our economic development efforts," Huntsman said.

Here's how it's going to work: The Governor's Office of Economic Development will vet proposals for projects within renewable-energy zones identified in a Utah Geological Society study for "post-performance" incentives.

Local governments and the state will negotiate the contracts, which would require the developers actually to produce energy before getting any financial or in-kind breaks.

To make sure the energy won't be stranded in the outback, the state will set up a quasi-governmental agency that will assist the communities and energy developers to issue bonds for transmission lines to connect to the main grid -- and the big markets in California and Nevada.

Jason Perry, executive director of the economic development office, said every incentive deal would be written according to the needs and desires of the local communities. "We don't want the state to tell them what to do," he said. "We want them to have some skin in the game, be involved in the recruitment of these companies."

And it's not just the actual projects that will boost fortunes. Component manufacturers and research and development parks also are eligible for the incentives.


Long preparation » For four years, Huntsman built his new energy plan, brick by brick.

He hosted forums that drew vendors, lawmakers, conservation groups and regulators to discuss the state's renewable-energy potential. He set energy-efficiency goals for the state and urged renewable energy development standards that would make solar, geothermal, wind and biomass 20 percent of the state's mix by 2025. He commissioned a study of the state's potential and laid out renewable-energy zones. His energy policy adviser, Dianne Nielson, is working on a cost-benefit analysis for renewable development.

In 2007, Huntsman signed on to the Western Regional Climate Action Initiative, joining with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon and Washington to combat global warming. Meanwhile, as the governor was preparing to run for his second term, GOED surveyed more than 2,000 businesses on their priorities.

Topping the list was energy security.


Sea change » The two bills' passage was virtually unopposed until Senate Majority Leader Sheldon Killpack, R-Syracuse -- reasoning that because nuclear power could be considered an alternative to oil and gas, it therefore also fit the renewable-energy profile -- amended HB430 on the Senate floor.

That cost some votes when it came back to the House. But House Majority Leader Kevin Garn, HB430's sponsor, said no one bothered to debate the amendment because like all of the incentives, anything offered for nuclear would come only after a plant was built and pumping electricity. "It takes 30 years even to license one of those," he said. "It's not even reality."

That bump aside, the bills' success represents a massive attitude shift in the Legislature, where ideological resistance to man-made global climate disruption and support for coal, oil and gas have made renewable energy development a hard sell.

Last year, Sen. Scott McCoy, D-Salt Lake City, got exactly nowhere with a bill that would have created a task force to identify renewable energy development zones in rural areas that needed economic boosts. The bill also would have set up a special panel to make sure the clean power made it to the grid.

The atmosphere was so anti-green that a simple proposal to conserve water in state buildings got zapped because Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab, insisted the proposal had connections to "radical" environmental groups.

This year, Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo, sponsored SB76 to accompany Garn's bill, promising it would help a lucrative rural power transmission industry grow incrementally.

"This is a big deal," said Garn. "Everyone's just been waiting for this. There was no question this was going to pass. The governor really deserves the credit."

Garn, R-Layton, also applauded the Obama administration's efforts to support alternative energy, as did Adams.

"There's just been a resistance on the part of everybody to look at renewables," Adams said. "It appeared to be too green, it appeared to be promoted by the environmental community, and the capitalists didn't capture [the] vision soon enough. It was just kind of a prejudice thing, in my opinion."

Supporters of the two bills this year sidestepped the perennial animosity by avoiding climate-change debates altogether: You don't have to weigh in on the science, Perry said, when you are focusing on the economic prize.

Huntsman's energy bills

Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., through the Governor's Office of Economic Development, shepherded two groundbreaking renewable energy bills through this year's legislative session.

HB430 Economic Development Incentives for Alternative Energy Project » Offers "post-performance" economic incentives to renewable energy businesses. Sponsor: Rep. Kevin Garn, R-Layton.

SB76 Energy Amendments » Sets up the Utah Generated Renewable Energy Electricity Network Authority, an agency that will help qualifying renewable-energy producers issue bonds for transmission lines necessary to get their solar, wind, geothermal and biomass energy to market. Sponsor: Sen. Curt Bramble, R-Provo

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