Most of the University of Utah’s electricity will now be fueled by renewable energy

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The University of Utah gets more than half of electricity from renewable sources, including these solar panels located on the roof of the Marriott Library.

It’s going to be much more sustainable to light up Rice-Eccles Stadium, the hospital at the University of Utah and all of the classrooms on campus in between.

In a landmark energy deal, the U. has agreed to buy some of its power from a geothermal plant. And with it, the school will now get more than 50% of its electricity through renewable sources.

“This is just such a big step,” said Keith Diaz-Moore, the university’s interim chief sustainability officer, “and it puts us on our way to being entirely carbon neutral.”

The U. will be the first public college in the state to cross that halfway marker on clean electricity. It will also be among the first in the nation to purchase such a large amount of geothermal energy.

Negotiations on the much-anticipated agreement began in 2017 and were finalized this November. Under the partnership, the university will get 20 megawatts of geothermal power from a plant in Nevada. It’s such a massive buy that the U.’s electricity will now be fueled 53.7% by renewable energy. Before the contract, it was only 4.6%.

Those previous power sources were mostly water and solar, including some panels on campus to harness energy from the sun.

But by comparison, those panels — including prominently at the Marriott Library and the Natural History Museum — were creating about 1 million kilowatt hours of energy per year. With the geothermal addition, it will be more than 161 million.

“Sustainability is at the heart of this,” Diaz-Moore said. “And it shows a tremendous effort and commitment by the university to use these renewable sources.”

Geothermal energy is produced by harnessing heat under the earth’s surface. At the plant that the U. will get its electricity from, there are four wells drilled into the ground over massive pools of hot water — some more than 9,000 feet deep and more than 365 degrees Fahrenheit. That water is pumped up to the surface where the vapor from it rotates a generator or turbine and produces power. Once cooled, that liquid is then returned back down to the earth in a closed loop.

It’s one of the most environmentally friendly and efficient energy sources. And it’s more predictable than almost any other.

The U.’s contract for the power, made with the Utah-based company Cyrq Energy, which owns the geothermal plant in Nevada known as the Soda Lake Field, will include a fixed rate for 25 years. The university declined to disclose the price per unit, but said it’s comparable to what it currently pays for electricity.

The benefit, though, is that by relying on the geothermal deal, the U.’s lighting costs will not go up if natural gas prices do. And its power won’t be reliant on only wind or solar, which can be more fleeting renewable sources.

“Geothermal is very consistent,” Diaz-Moore said, “and it works in sync with those others.”

The U. helped fund new equipment at the geothermal plant, but the field was already existing, too, so it didn’t require more drilling.

(Photo Courtesy of the University of Utah) Pictured is the geothermal plant that will supply electricity to the University of Utah.

It did take several years, though, to come to an agreement over the power. The electricity will reach the university through Rocky Mountain Power’s grid.

The goal — which the school committed to in 2008 — is to get the U. to be entirely carbon neutral by 2050. With the geothermal addition, half of its electricity will be. But the U. uses more energy than just electricity and it’s only one part of its carbon footprint that contributes to pollution.

Factoring in all of its consumption and emissions, including cars and heating systems, the university is now about 23% of the way to not using any carbon sources overall.

“This geothermal plan just makes a big dent,” added Chris Benson, the sustainability and energy associate director for the U.’s Facilities Management.

Diaz-Moore added: “And we have our plans to get to the goal in the next 30 years.”

The next step after geothermal is for the university to finalize a solar agreement bigger than anything its panels, with the first installed in 2009, are currently generating on campus. After a previous vendor failed to provide the energy, the U. started working with ENYO Renewable Energy for 20 megawatts of solar power.

Once a contract is place and the grid is functional, it would bump the U.’s electricity from 53.7% to 71% from renewable sources. Benson said it should be online by the end of 2021.

Even still, with just the geothermal addition, the U. is using enough renewable energy to power 19,000 homes in Utah. Its existing solar panels are already reducing greenhouse gas emissions by about 160 passenger vehicles driven for one year. (That doesn’t count, too, the efforts by the university to get students and staff to ride bikes or public transit to campus.) And it’s ranked No. 8 in the nation by the Environmental Protection Agency for its alternative power commitments.

“As a university, we’re educating the future generations that climate issues will have the greatest impact on,” Diaz-Moore said. “So it’s incumbent on us to be on the leading edge of this topic.”

In addition to buying geothermal energy, as the state’s flagship research university, the U. is also studying it.

The school received a $140 million federal grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2018 to develop new ways to extract geothermal power from less-than-ideal locations. That money, spent over the next five years, will expand the FORGE laboratory, short for Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy, in Milford. And researchers will also examine the drawbacks, such as the potential to create small earthquakes, potentially introduce contaminants into an underground well or how power would be impacted with an interruption.

Though the grant is unrelated to the new geothermal power contract for the school, Diaz-Moore said both are aimed at finding a more sustainable, efficient way forward to keep lighting the U.