Why West Valley City is having doubts about renewable energy plan

Costs and commitment worry officials, who aim to get to 100% clean energy by 2030 anyway.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A TRAX train passes by West Valley City Hall, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

If all roads lead to clean energy in Utah, some municipalities such as West Valley City are leaning toward taking an alternative path to reach it.

A 2019 renewable energy bill promised a steady course for local governments to follow to achieve 100% clean energy by 2030. The plan was to push the development of an energy infrastructure that would interconnect and feed solar, wind and other carbon-free sources of electricity directly into the Rocky Mountain Power system.

The Community Renewable Energy Act, an interlocal agreement born out of HB411, started when nearly two dozen Utah cities and counties committed to the 100% clean energy goal by passing a qualifying resolution, though many other local governments stayed on the sidelines. The legislation passed with Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, and then-Sen. Daniel Hemmert, R-Orem, as sponsors.

Implementing the initiative didn’t end there, however. This multiyear effort required various steps. Right now, advocates are trying to get those qualifying cities and counties to enroll in a governance agreement to be able to continue in the program.

Opting in means cities and counties would pay the costs for Phase 1. They also would become part of groups that would work alongside Rocky Mountain Power in the design of the utility programs.

So far, 15 local governments have joined the interlocal accord to activate HB411. Salt Lake City, Summit County, Grand County, Moab, Millcreek, Park City and Castle Valley have signed and made additional voluntary payments to ensure the funding of those implementation costs, which run approximately $700,000. Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Francis, Holladay, Kearns, Ogden, Salt Lake County and Springdale also are participating in the second step of the process.

Eight other communities that initially embraced the project haven’t made the commitment to keep going — even though they are eligible since they adopted resolutions supporting net-100% renewable electricity for their communities by 2030.

West Valley City, the state’s second most-populous city, is one of them — along with Bluffdale, Coalville, Emigration Canyon Township, Kamas, Oakley, Orem and West Jordan.

Cost remains a worry

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Valley City Hall, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

After two years of discussions, a change of mayor and of two council seats — and even with a new deadline that would allow the city to enroll by May 31 — the city seems unlikely to sign on and make its initial $47,899.22 payment for Phase 1.

A primary worry is the impact that switching to clean energy would have on the city’s low-income residents.

City Manager Wayne Pyle recommended the City Council not to take the next step to enroll in the Community Renewable Energy Act. He warned that the city would not be able to control its own destiny once it committed to the plan.

“You are a small portion of the whole,” he said.

“We’re always skeptical and closely examine any sort of new organization before we join it,” Pyle said. “My main big concern with House Bill 411 is that I got 140,000 residents out here, and what they are proposing would include an undefined financial burden for residents.”

The City Council still discusses the agreement. If West Valley City ultimately signs on, residents would be automatically included in the clean energy switch. They can opt out by checking a box on their utility bill.

Newly minted Mayor Karen Lang has doubts about the program.

“I don’t think we have enough solid information from Rocky Mountain as to what it would cost the residents,” she said. “They just don’t have the details, or they’re not sharing them. And so I’m not comfortable committing our residents to anything without all the information.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Valley City Mayor Karen Lang at her home on Wednesday, Dec. 8, 2021. She is wary of committing the city to an interlocal agreement about renewable energy.

There’s not a precise prediction about how much the energy rates would increase. A 2017 study found that, with this program, “rates would be 9% to 14% higher in 2032 for the communities versus business as usual.” Since then, solar prices have decreased by around 25%, Utah 100 Communities, the agency that administers the program, stated on its website.

Going it alone

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) A UTA bus picks up passengers in West Valley City, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

Program advocates argue this represents a rare opportunity to reach a key environmental goal. Electricity is one of the largest sources of carbon emissions nationwide, and this program has the potential to drastically cut them and make clean energy accessible for people who can’t afford the upfront investment of solar panels and other energy-efficiency tools.

“This program will not come around again. This opportunity is not something that there is a political appetite to re-create,” said Lindsay Beebe, campaign representative from the Sierra Club. “It took huge political capital to create this in the first place. And it currently is the only program in Utah, and also in the country, that allows cities to achieve 100% renewable energy by 2030.”

For his part, Pyle doubts West Valley City is missing out on an opportunity. The city, he said, is working toward the same goal of 100% clean energy by 2030 through its own means.

The city shifted to four-day workweeks for its employees in the early 2000s, for example, and converted part of its fleet to hybrid vehicles, including cars for police detectives.

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) West Valley City Police Department headquarters, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2022.

“We put a million dollars in federal partnerships to emission reduction efforts that would result in energy-efficiency upgrades here at City Hall,” Pyle said. “We’ve done the same thing at the Family Fitness Center. That’s a 100,000-square-foot facility. We’ve done that at the Maverik Center, in its interior, and we’re working on the outside, to make lights go into a full LED structure up there.”

The city approves 400 residential rooftop solar projects a year, according to Pyle, and has amassed around 4,500 overall. He believes that these types of actions will accelerate and continue in the next eight years.

“We’re not perfect. We’re not there yet,” Pyle said. “But we have been accelerating and are making great progress towards that.”

Carmen Valdez, policy associate at the environmental nonprofit Heal Utah, has discussed the program with city officials and has been working with businesses to encourage them to advocate for HB411.

Valdez said government officials need to know that being part of the interlocal accord does not mean that they are tied to a program they can’t control.

“What we’re hoping for is for them to see that by becoming part of the committee and the board that’s developing this plan and proposing it to Rocky Mountain Power,” she said, “you can actually ensure that those concerns that you have are addressed and include things like making sure that there are opportunities for expansion from the utility in terms of local source power.”

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.