Robert Gehrke: Here’s what Utah’s move to renewables means for our future

Robert Gehrke

Utah energy users got a glimpse of the future last week and it shouldn’t come as a surprise — it’s greener, powered increasingly by the wind and sun and less by coal and natural gas.

Over the next 20 years, PacifiCorp — the electricity provider for 1.9 million customers in Utah and in five other states — plans to build 7,000 megawatts of new wind and solar power. In Utah alone, it is planning 3,000 megawatts of new solar power.

At the same time, it is moving away from coal, shaving a combined 97 years off the projected use of seven coal plants from its forecast developed just two years ago, even as the population of the region is projected to grow at a brisk pace.

This is a major transformation of our energy future.

Before we get too carried away with our praise, let’s keep a little perspective. It’s not like the company was visited by the spirit of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg or Al Gore — more like the spirit of Warren Buffet, whose Berkshire Hathaway owns PacifiCorp.

Buffet likes to make money, and he’s pretty good at it. So these decisions are driven by a clear-eyed evaluation of the market forces to maximize profit, not some altruistic desire to save a warming planet.

(Tribune file photo) Huntington coal-fired Power Plant owned by PacifiCorp in Huntington, Utah, is seen June 3, 2011. Western U.S. electrical utility PacifiCorp plans to move faster away from coal-fired power while getting more juice from the sun and wind, the company announced Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

“There are a lot of renewables in the preferred portfolio short-term and long-term, but that’s based on economics,” Hunter Holman, staff attorney for Utah Clean Energy, told me. “This is just where the market is transforming into and they’re just following the economic signals.”

They’re not closing coal plants until the cost of keeping them open stops making economic sense. The Hunter coal units in Utah, for example, will operate until 2042, and the Huntington plants will burn coal until 2037.

It’s a step in the right direction, Holman said. But, he adds, “It’s not enough to say, ‘Our future is renewables.' You still have a system that is relying on coal for decades to come.”

That is problematic as we stare down the looming threat of a warming planet, but perhaps also gives us a blueprint on how to solve the problem, because it shows us one thing is clear — market forces work.

That’s encouraging for a couple of reasons. First and foremost, wind and solar power will only become more and more attractive as costs come down, plus the price of the wind and sun won’t fluctuate like the cost of a ton of coal.

The knock on renewables has always been that the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow, but you always want the lights to go on when you flip the switch.

Now, however, as battery technology improves, PacifiCorp for the first time identified storage projects as a key part of its future, with plans to build 600 megawatts of storage by 2025 and 2,800 megawatts by 2038.

Those batteries can only store a few hours of electricity, but as that storage capacity gets longer and longer, renewables can start filling that coveted “baseload” need. The point being that — again, because of market forces — the move away from coal and gas will not slow down and, if anything, will accelerate dramatically.

Another factor that could speed the demise of coal would be putting an additional price on carbon — making corporations pay a fee for their greenhouse gas emissions — something most of the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed and environmental groups have supported for years.

Pacificorp forecast what this kind of “social cost” of carbon would mean and the results, predictably, were an even more rapid move to solar and wind and a larger reduction in harmful emissions.

Yes, ratepayers would pay more, but aggressive action is needed to stave off the looming climate threat, and the Pacificorp modeling shows, without question, that targeted policies can have a profound effect in meeting the greenhouse gas targets that scientists globally say are needed.

(Matt Young | AP file photo) A wind turbine farm owned by PacifiCorp near Glenrock, Wyo., is seen May 6, 2013. Western U.S. electrical utility PacifiCorp plans to move faster away from coal-fired power while getting more juice from the sun and wind, the company announced Thursday, Oct. 3, 2019.

This transition away from coal is not painless, obviously. Communities in several states that have relied for generations on coal are already hurting.

In Wyoming, for example, where the shuttering of coal plants had been a ways off, but now is suddenly imminent, Gov. Mark Gordon tweeted that he was “personally disappointed” with PacifiCorp’s plans.

“The early closure of coal-fired power units and the associated mines is a blow to the people of Wyoming,” Gordon said. “My focus now is on the workers and the communities that will be impacted by this announcement.”

Utah’s coal country, however, has more time to react than Wyoming’s. As I mentioned, PacifiCorp currently plans to operate coal plants in Utah until 2042. But, again, those dates will almost certainly be moved up, and the company’s forecast should serve as a warning to get serious about a post-coal future.

Utah’s economy is also more diversified than Wyoming’s and, as I wrote back in June, the state is getting a jump on it, with its Coal Country Strike Force, based at the University of Utah and focused on four crucial areas — growing tech opportunities, controlling housing prices, bolstering the tourism economy and incentivizing business development.

The blueprint was recently named one of the top plans to help middle America in the America Ideas Challenge and is worth putting more resources behind.

Because what PacifiCorp clearly showed us this week is that our energy future will be greener than our past and it’s time for the rest of Utah to embrace and even work to accelerate that change.