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Solar energy poised to blossom in Utah desert

Published June 5, 2014 7:09 am

Summit • Utility-scale operations are near shovel-ready on state, private land.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's got lots of flat land at high elevations bathed in abundant sunshine. So Utah must be booming with solar energy development, right?

Wrong, but "utility-scale" projects in the Beehive State are about to take off, with several slated for construction next year, all on state and private land, according to speakers at Wednesday's Energy Development Summit hosted by Gov. Gary Herbert.

"I don't know what took so long. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that Utah has high solar potential. There is such a community of support for these projects, it's time for them to get going," said Peter Sullivan, development director with First Wind. The company operates a 165-turbine wind farm near Milford and exports its 306-megawatt capacity to Southern California.

First Wind is now moving into the solar business. On Wednesday the company announced it has reached critical agreements with Rocky Mountain Power to purchase 20 megawatts of power from seven projects First Wind will build in Iron and Beaver counties. They will deploy 73,000 300-watt panels expected to go online in summer 2015, producing enough power for 4,000 Utah homes.

Rocky Mountain Power, which serves most of Utah, has come under fire for not doing enough to develop and purchase power from alternative sources and for proposing a $51-a-year fee on net-metered customers, who inject power into the grid from rooftop solar arrays.

Although the utility generates most of its power from coal, CEO Richard Walje said "cost-effective renewables" will be an important part of its portfolio and said it is already heavily invested in wind power.

The company is now studying land it owns for a location for its first utility-scale solar farm, said Chad Ambrose, its renewables program manager. Expected to go online in 2016, the farm would generate only a few megawatts, enough power for about 500 homes.

A pivot toward solar, however modest, could help Utah meet the carbon-reduction targets the Obama administration has proposed for power generation, the sector of the economy responsible for the greatest emissions of greenhouse gases. Utah is among the nation's most dependent states on coal, which scientists consider a leading contributor to climate change.

The governor said he is concerned about the proposed regulations' impact on electricity prices. But his keynote speaker, Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute, said these rules would merely codify an ongoing trend away from coal to cheap natural gas, unleashed by innovations in drilling.

Renewables hold a puny, though rapidly growing, share of the nations' energy portfolio. That share would grow faster if the Bureau of Land Management, which controls vasts swaths of the sunbathed West, streamlines approval processes, according to Tim Charters, a staffer with the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee.

Two years ago, the BLM identified 285,000 acres suitable for development in several solar energy zones, or SEZs, three of which are in southwest Utah. But developing in these zones is "crazytown" because the permitting process is so onerous, Charters said.

"If we want a solar boom on federal lands we have to find a way to permit them in a more timely fashion," he said, noting none of the three proposals for Utah SEZs went anywhere.

Wednesday's conference highlighted two other projects to be built next year in Utah by two of the world's largest solar developers.

Juwi Solar, a Boulder, Colo.-based subsidiary of the German firm Juwi AG, is developing a 50-megawatt solar farm on 350 acres of private ranchlands outside Holden. The company has signed a 20-year power purchase agreement with Rocky Mountain Power, according to Carrie Bellamy.

SunEdison has the most ambitious plans for Utah, with several projects in the works in southwestern Utah. The company has secured agreements to sell 33 megawatts and is negotiating contracts for another 55, according to the company's Sam Youneszadeh. It also is eyeing four large-scale projects across sites that could generate up to 260 megawatts — about two-thirds the capacity of Salt Lake City's Gadsby generating station.

SunEdison plans on investing $500 million in Utah by 2016, generating 700 construction jobs and establishing a centralized service center in Iron County that would have 10 to 15 permanent positions, Youneszadeh said.

bmaffly@sltrib.com