Utah has the nation’s cheapest electricity, but it’s not very climate-friendly

Legislators cheer the low rates but question environmental criteria in independent study.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Huntington coal-fired power plant owned by Rocky Mountain Power is shown in 2011. An Illinois study found Utah has the lowest electricity costs in the country, but it is more dependent on fossil fuels than most states.

Utah ranks No. 1 for the lowest electricity bills in the nation, but those rates are built on fossil fuels that rank the state No. 43 for the carbon and pollutants produced by electrical generation.

Those are the Utah results of a nationwide study from the Citizens Utility Board, a nonprofit that advocates for utility customers in Illinois. The group’s communications director, Jim Chilsen, presented the findings Wednesday to Utah legislators on the Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee.

“We believe it’s the first report of its kind,” Chilsen said.

The group ranked electrical service in the 50 states and District of Columbia on three criteria: affordability, reliability and environmental impact. Utah was first for affordability, 15th for reliability and 43rd for clean energy. That gave the state an overall ranking of 10th place.

Chilsen commended the state for keeping rates low, but he said every state has room to improve on all three criteria. “By no means should states that scored well here take it as a license to coast.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Chilsen said all of the data in the report came from three public sources, the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Census Bureau. The numbers reflect all electrical utilities across the state, including Rocky Mountain Power and various municipal and rural cooperative systems.

On affordability, Utah has the lowest annual electricity cost and the lowest cost as a percentage of household income.

Committee co-chair Sen. David Hinkins, R-Orangeville, praised Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest electricity provider, for keeping rates down. He noted that other states ranked at the top (Washington, Idaho, Oregon and Wyoming) are also served by Rocky Mountain or its parent company, PacifiCorp.

Richard Garlish, general counsel and vice president of government affairs for Rocky Mountain, pointed out that his company’s rates have stayed well below inflation in recent years.

He said the company tries to be customer-driven, and he praised legislators in return for sharing those values. “I’d like to let the company take all the credit, but that’s simply not true. The state of Utah has a very stable and predictable energy policy.”

Legislators also heard from representatives of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems and the Utah Rural Electric Cooperative Association, which provide power to most parts of Utah not covered by Rocky Mountain. They thanked legislators for not mandating any shift to renewable sources.

Mike Squires, director of government affairs for UAMPS, said that Utah has added more solar capacity last year than Colorado and New Mexico, two states that have renewable mandates.

On reliability, the states were ranked based on the quantity and severity of power outages. Utah was in the top half in most measures, but it was ranked 30th for “average time to restore power without major event days.” Two neighboring states, Nevada and Arizona, were first and second on the reliability list.

On environmental impact, Utah ranked 45th for “carbon dioxide emissions from electrical generation per gigawatt hour,” which is largely a reflection of the state’s continued dependence on coal to produce electricity. It also was 43rd for “clean energy generation,” although it did rise to 36th place for “renewable energy generation.”

Rocky Mountain operates two big coal-fired plants in Emery County (in Hinkins’ district) that are the largest producers of electricity in the state. Rocky Mountain has committed to dropping its greenhouse gas emissions to 74% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Sen. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, wondered if the study should have included the positive effect of Utah’s natural assets.

“We have vast amounts of public lands and forest in the state,” Owens said, “and we have millions of acres of trees that consume carbon dioxide and produce oxygen.”

Chilsen said no “offsets” were included in the report, but the group may consider that in the future.

Hinkins asked if the study was measuring the negative effects of wind power on birds and bats that die in collisions with windmill blades.

Chilsen said the study did not consider the effects on wildlife of renewable generation, but it also didn’t consider the effects coal- and gas-fired power plants have on wildlife.