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Editorial: It's complicated, but air quality is the most important thing

Published February 27, 2014 1:01 am

Air quality must come first
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated.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.

The times they are a changing. And, whether you run a multi-state power grid, a statewide highway system, a big power-consuming business or a household that must have a breaker box around here someplace, adjusting to those times will take some thought.

Members of the Utah Legislature, who have to pay for the state's highway system and who make laws governing the way electricity is delivered and priced, have been struggling with these issues during their current session and, so far, haven't come up with a clear answer on how to proceed.

It's not that they've blown an easy task. The questions before them are complicated, and any decisions they make carry serious risks of long chains of unintended consequences.

But the air quality problems suffered in northern Utah are serious. Making rules, creating incentives, even bearing costs, to deal with that issue should be the primary goal.

There are mixed feelings about the bill that would empower Rocky Mountain Power to add a surcharge to the bills of homes that provide much of their own power through household solar installations, often producing excess juice that gets sold back to RMP.

Without such an extra charge, homes that use less power, and pay smaller bills, will shift the cost of maintaining the overall power grid, which even most solar-powered households will still need, onto the company and then onto other, non-solar customers.

But even if such a charge is kept minimal — such as the $4.25 a month that RMP is seeking in its new rate request — anything that might discourage the wider adoption of zero-emissions power generation threatens to be a net loser, if not for the checkbooks, then for the lungs of all of its ratepayers.

The Legislature has also thrown in the towel, for at least a year, on a bill that would allow cities and counties to buy blocks of renewable power and have it delivered via RMP's grid. It is something that a lot of businesses and households want, even if it costs more money. But, again, the economics of delivering alternative power over a grid that depends on a stable rate base to stay operational is hard to pencil out.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are moving forward two bills concerning electric cars. One would offer a $2,500 state income tax for buying one, and cutting down on emissions. Another would triple the state registration fee for such vehicles, to help make up for the lost gas tax revenue that most cars pay to keep the state's road network flowing.

There is going to be a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul going on. It can be a difficult balance to strike. But, in the long run, improving our air quality has to be the most important goal.