This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
Kevin Nielsen’s future in renewable energy was so bright he had to wear shades. Sometimes literally.
Nielsen worked as the renewable energy finance team lead for Celtic Bank, finding funding to make solar farms a reality throughout Utah.
Nielsen has experienced his share of economic hardship over the years, working multiple jobs to support his family of five. For the shift to renewable energy finance was promising, but not easy.
“It was a big investment of time and resources over a period of years for both me and Celtic Bank to build up that expertise,” he said.
But it felt like a valuable niche that would allow him to do work he found meaningful: “It’s a good feeling to contribute to sustainable energy.”
For Celtic Bank, it was an opportunity to stake a claim in financing the future of energy.
Yet in May 2021 Nielsen found himself unemployed. Celtic ended its work in renewable energy in Utah as obstacles impeded the pace of solar energy development.
Utah has vast potential for renewable energy, particularly in solar and geothermal, as mapped by the state. But only a tiny fraction of that potential has been developed.
The primary reason, according to experts, comes down to connection to power and lack of state incentives.
Connecting the dots
The first big hurdle to tapping Utah’s renewable energy is getting to it. Potential solar, wind, and geothermal utility sites are often found in the deserts of western and southern Utah, what Iron County Economic Development Director Dan Stewart calls, “Rough country.”
Iron County, home to roughly 54,000 Utahns, has the most promising solar farm sites in the state, far to the west of Cedar City.
“There’s huge potential there,” Stewart said, “but it’s not worth it to developers without transmission lines.”
Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Office of Energy Development agreed: “We just need more ways, stronger ways to get power from point A to point B.”
Efforts to expand connections are underway to the north. Rocky Mountain Power is working on a 400-mile heavy transmission line that will run from eastern Wyoming to central Utah. That, and an east-west line connecting energy resources in Wyoming to those in the Pacific Northwest, would link Utah to wind power in other states.
All of this should occur over the next several years. Yet none of this will help develop that solar potential west of Cedar City.
“We need transmission lines running west and south,” said Danny Stewart. Specifically, they need to connect to California.
Utah’s problem is not the lack of renewable resources. Utah gets more sunlight than Florida, the Sunshine State. And while only 5.8% of energy consumed in Utah is from renewable sources, Utah produces more electricity than it consumes. It’s an energy exporter.
For decades, the main energy export for Utah was coal. But as coal power plants have shut down around the country, that demand has dropped off.
If transmission lines better linked Utah’s rugged southwest to Las Vegas and California, Utah could become a leader in exporting clean energy.
“Transmission lines and infrastructure can make a solar development make financial sense, but so could having strong enough incentives,” Nielsen said.
In other words, financial incentives could also prompt development of a solar farm, which might then create enough incentive for development of additional transmission lines, and vice versa.
“California has so much energy because their legislature has created mandates and massive incentives,” Nielsen said.
California’s incentives are so good, that Utah sends pig poop-generated renewable natural gas to homes in sunny SoCal. With more than 200 laws and policies on the books to advance renewable energy and efficiency, it is little surprise that nearly half of the state’s energy output comes from renewable sources.
While California, by one measure, ranks at the top for creating a renewable-friendly policy environment, Utah is 33rd.
“We have tons of space available and we have the insulation gradients to do great amounts of solar power,” Nielsen said. “We have giant fields where wind power would be great. It’s just motivating the developers to do it, and that will probably mean getting serious about incentives.” said Nielsen. “We could have clean energy and clean jobs.”
Not all is doom and gloom for Utah. While renewable is still a small slice of the overall energy pie at 6%, the amount of utility grade solar has doubled in Utah in the last few years.
David Eskelsen, spokesperson for Rocky Mountain Power, points to the “more than 5,000 megawatts of new solar resources,” slated for development. Making that much solar a reality relies on a variety of developers over an indeterminate number of years, but if it happens it would increase the power generating capacity in the state by more than 50%.
“These developments could help fill the needs our long-range planning anticipated,” Eskelsen said.
In December, the U.S. Economic Development Administration announced that Utah is a finalist for a Build Back Better Grant. The program provides funding for technical planning. If the state makes it to the second round, it could receive tens of millions of dollars to help develop Utah’s renewable energy resources.
Meanwhile, Kevin Nielsen has moved on to a new role.
“I spent four years building a niche skill that I can now only use if I move to California or the East Coast,” he said.
But he hopes Utah will choose to commit to the infrastructure and incentives needed to fully develop our renewable resources.
“Regardless of your politics, the clock is running out on old energy like coal,” Nielsen said. “We can pretend it’s not happening, or we can invest and create clean energy and clean jobs that will stay and employ Utahns for decades to come.”