‘We have to take action’ — Salt Lake City mayor discusses ‘electrification,’ climate change in Tribune talk

In Utah, the majority of transportation and buildings are still powered by non-renewable energy sources, making them the two largest contributors to air pollution along the Wasatch Front.

(Bethany Baker | The Salt Lake Tribune) Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, left, speaks during a moderated discussion hosted by Salt Lake Tribune renewable energy reporter Tim Fitzpatrick on electrification at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022.

When talking about climate change, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall doesn’t want people to feel daunted. Instead, she wants them to feel emboldened by a time of technology that allows individuals to take meaningful action.

That type of passion abounded in a University of Utah auditorium on Tuesday afternoon, as she and two other panelists participated in a community conversation about one of those emerging technologies: electrification, or the conversion of buildings and transportation to run on electricity.

“When you look back over the course of human history, the great epochs of time are marked by transition in fuel source,” Mendenhall told the more than 70 attendees. “... We are on the cusp right now of a major transformation in the way that we power everything in this world.”

The other panelists were James Campbell, director of innovation and sustainability at PacifiCorp/Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company; and Samuel Jensen Augustine, director of infrastructure, capital improvements and sustainability at the University of Utah.

Salt Lake Tribune renewable energy reporter Tim Fitzpatrick moderated the hourlong discussion that was part current status update, part look into the future. And the afternoon’s topics ranged from electric cars to the feasibility of full electrification to the political challenges of switching to cleaner energy sources.

Why make the switch to electrification?

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Traffic moves along 600 South in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The city aims to have 100% net renewable energy by 2030, if not sooner, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said.

The importance of electrification in Utah is two-fold, Fitzpatrick explained. The first reason to switch is the state’s poor air quality. Most transportation in Utah is still powered by gasoline and diesel fuel, and the majority of buildings are heated by natural gas.

Not surprisingly, transportation is the largest contributor to air pollution along the Wasatch Front, followed by the region’s buildings, he said.

The second reason to embrace electrification is the danger of climate change, which Mendenhall put in blunt terms.

“The reality is that climate change is the single most pressing issue that we face as members of the human community on planet Earth,” she said. “We have to take action.”

While acknowledging that electric energy is still highly dependent on coal-fired power lines, Fitzpatrick said that sources of electricity are “getting cleaner, they can get cleaner, they will get cleaner — they can get to 100% clean,” while adding that fuel combustion will never reach that mark.

“That’s why the endgame, frankly, is electrification,” he said.

The fuel mix used to generate Rocky Mountain Power’s electricity is currently comprised of around 48% coal, Campbell said, compared to around 30% renewables. If everything goes to plan, those fuel emissions should continue to drop until 2050, when emissions will “basically be at net zero.”

“It’s kind of mind boggling how much renewables are being brought on right now as we’re talking,” Campbell said.

Looking to the future

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Downtown Salt Lake City on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The city aims to have 100% net renewable energy by 2030, if not sooner, Mayor Erin Mendenhall said.

In Salt Lake City, along with more than a dozen other Utah municipalities, the goal is to have 100% net renewable energy by 2030, if not before, Mendenhall said.

Bringing more electric vehicles into the state faster, equitably expanding electric vehicle charging infrastructure and constructing more fully electric buildings were other initiatives the mayor highlighted.

“We’re not going to pay for affordable housing creation, for new building creation, unless it’s going to be run cleanly off of renewable energy,” she said.

Similarly, the University of Utah has pledged that all new construction will be fully electric moving forward. The decision was based on a number of factors, including economic and value-based considerations.

“It made sense from a sustainability value, from a social perspective to go all electric,” Augustine said. “From an environmental and a climate perspective, it made sense for us to go all electric.”

At the same time, the panelists emphasized that Utah’s transition to electrification should be done in a “smart” way that doesn’t balloon the state’s energy costs, which are the lowest in the nation. Affordability is imperative to getting the needed traction and political willpower for change.

Moving forward in a measured, deliberate way will also ensure that Utah’s grid can handle the switch to electrification.

“So to answer the general question, can we do it? Yes, we can do it, but we gotta do it smart,” Campbell said. “And we have to have also smart consumers. And we have to have the technology as well.”

You can watch the whole conversation on The Tribune’s website or Instagram page.

Correction: Aug. 8, 10:30 a.m. • This story has been updated to reflect that Rocky Mountain Power’s electricity, which is not used in all of Utah, is generated by a mixture including around 48% coal and 30% renewables.