Rocky Mountain Power will now seek proposals for solar projects in Utah and other states to quell accusations that it showed bias in its recent choices on new power-generation investments.
Company spokesman David Eskelsen said Thursday the state’s largest provider of electricity will issue its call for new solar proposals in the next 4-6 weeks, while it considers bids to construct the more than 1,100 megawatts of wind generation the company hopes to develop, primarily in Wyoming.
State regulators had urged Rocky Mountain Power to gather additional proposals after clean energy advocates argued the utility used outdated data to make the $3.5 billion Wyoming wind project appear less expensive and more desirable than other options, such as Utah-based solar array farms.
A handful of rural county commissioners from Utah had also publicly berated the utility over the Wyoming project, which they said showed a pattern of bias against renewable energy projects in rural Utah.
The commissioners argued Rocky Mountain Power should have let their rural communities compete for the project, to be built in southwestern Wyoming in the next three years. Instead, the utility’s April announcement on the project took many by surprise, partly because it had not appeared in Rocky Mountain Power’s long-term resource plans.
Sevier County Commissioner Garth “Tooter” Ogden said Thursday he was glad to hear that Rocky Mountain Power was “at least thinking about allowing Utah to have some opportunities.”
Ogden said Sevier County, like many other rural areas, hoped to diversify its economy to boost job opportunities. Rocky Mountain Power, he said, has “played a game with these folks” to damage the coal industry, on which Sevier County and other rural communities remains heavily reliant.
Although the company has acknowledged that it will not need additional generation capacity right away, Rocky Mountain Power officials said they want to build the Wyoming wind project to take advantage of federal tax credits. In the long run, company officials said, the credits will make the wind farm more affordable than if the company waited to expand.
But Sarah Wright, executive director of the advocacy group Utah Clean Energy, said Rocky Mountain Power may have inflated the cost of solar power as much as 40 percent in its filings with state regulators, making projections on the proposed wind farm’s output appear far cheaper by comparison.
“And lo and behold,” Wright said, “wind came out as the economic resource to add in the near term,” she said.
Although Utah Clean Energy supports all renewable energy and wants to see Rocky Mountain Power take advantage of tax incentives, Wright said, the group objected because the company’s analysis overlooked the potential of other resources such as solar power, including in Utah.
Two of Utah’s three Public Service Commissioners, the regulators that oversee utilities such as Rocky Mountain Power, found those arguments “inconclusive,” according to a September 22 order. But the evidence was compelling enough to justify a non-binding suggestion from the commission that Rocky Mountain consider solar proposals projects in addition to the desired wind proposals.
According to the order, if Rocky Mountain Power “chooses not to accept the suggested modification, it will have to defend that decision” when it comes before the Public Service Commission in the future.
Public Service Commission Chairman Thad LeVar declined Thursday to comment on the order.
But the commission’s third member, commissioner David Clark, argued the evidence offered was enough to suggest that Rocky Mountain Power should not be allowed to proceed with its wind farm plans in Wyoming until it showed it had fairly considered other possible opportunities.
“While a measure of skepticism may be appropriate in evaluating this evidence,” Clark wrote in his dissent to the ruling, “the only way to know with any certainty whether solar resources are relatively lower in cost is to allow competitive bids to reveal the answer.”