The air on Salt Lake City’s west side may enjoy a brighter future. Here’s why.

City joins federal project with the goal of bringing more solar panels to the area’s commercial buildings.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Solar panels on the roof of Century Laundry in Salt Lake City on Thursday, March 10, 2022. A new effort is underway to bring more such panels to west-side businesses.

Too often, a cloud of pollution peril hangs over Salt Lake City’s west side.

There are freeways. An international airport. A power plant. Various industrial operations. Too much energy-inefficient housing and too little money to minimize the smoggy threats.

But there is a new ray of hope: the sun.

After being selected for participation in the federal Solar Energy Innovation Network, the city, with a range of partners, is creating a program to bring a burst of solar panels to west-side stores, warehouses, offices and other commercial buildings, which often consume more energy than residences.

“Investing in clean energy is key to addressing our climate, public health, and economic resiliency over the coming years,” Mayor Erin Mendenhall said in a news release. “We need to make sure more members of our community have access to it, and this project will go a long way toward that goal.”

Although rooftop solar has grown dramatically in recent years, west-side areas have lagged behind.

“Underserved communities tend to face a lot of barriers,” Ofa Matagi, an access and equity associate at Utah Clean Energy, one of the project partners, said in an interview. “They’re very vulnerable to several unique forms of pollution not experienced by other neighborhoods within the county.”

The federal funding will help Salt Lake City launch the effort and pay for the work of experts and staffers. The city will host listening sessions with west-side businesses and develop culturally relevant outreach tools and resources that address solar market barriers.

It’s all done with an emphasis on underserved, Black, Indigenous and people of color commercial customers.

A big opportunity

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City is creating a program to bring solar panels to west-side commercial buildings.

Right now, the city is in the planning phases and is expected to conclude its analysis in the summer of 2023.

It then will recommend how to refine Rocky Mountain Power’s battery incentive program, which allows the utility to manage customer-owned battery systems in exchange for cash incentives and bill credits.

“This hasn’t been done to this scale,” Matagi said. “We have the opportunity to be able to hear from the communities that are most affected and that would benefit the most from it.”

Utah’s capital committed to achieving net 100% renewable electricity by 2030 through the Community Renewable Energy Act.

This project certainly will help propel that mission, said Sophia Nicholas, deputy director of the city’s Sustainability Department. But there’s another goal as well.

“One of our desires, as a city, is not only to support the environmental mission of reducing carbon emissions in line with our carbon reduction goals,” Nicholas said, “but to also help the community become more resilient.”

Other project partners include the Suazo Business Center, Centro Cívico Mexicano, the Utah Office of Energy Development, the Utah Division of Multicultural Affairs, and the construction company McKinstry — with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The partners hope to undertake case studies of at least three to five commercial entities, including a community center that would install solar panels and battery backup systems.

Experts then could analyze energy consumption, challenges and benefits from a switch to solar.

Initial payout, long-term payoff

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) A plane flies into Salt Lake City International Airport as inversion conditions settle into the valley in early February. A new initiative aims to bring more solar panels to the west side and help reduce air pollution.

Installation costs would be covered by the business owners, but financing options would be available through private banks, said Nicholas. Zions Bank and Intermountain Healthcare will also make recommendations on how to structure finance tools to work in these communities.

Some of the questions the city hopes to answer with the case studies are whether there’s enough capital for shifting to solar and what steps businesses can take to ease the money pressures.

“Our goal, " Nicholas said, “is to just help demystify the process for why and how you can go about getting solar on your property.”

She noted the city already has identified low solar participation on the west side.

“We recognize that there is a gap in awareness of the benefits of solar, about the opportunities for financing and other financial incentives for commercial customers with solar,” Nicholas said. “And then there’s a huge need to just make those resources available in ways that are culturally appropriate that reach members of our community that we don’t normally reach quite as well.”

For constituents of Suazo Business Center, the solar push can lead to a big change, especially if funding options are available for small businesses, said Edward Bennett, the center’s director of business development.

“One of the issues with solar is the initial upfront costs tend to be more expensive than most small businesses can afford. But if they have access to grant programs, then it is absolutely a feasible option for our minority small businesses,” he said. “And I would argue not just a feasible option, but a highly sought-after option.”

The trick may be getting past the initial sticker shock. The panels can ease monthly power bills and supply backup power during outages.

The bottom line, advocates say, is that solar can boost the bottom line.

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.