Poll says Utahns support closing coal-fired plants early

New polling suggests that Utahns support by a wide margin early retirements for Rocky Mountain Power’s coal-fired power plants in favor of using renewable energy sources like wind and solar.

Commissioned by Western Resource Advocates, the poll found that voters support a speedier transition to cleaner energy by a margin of 53% to 33%. The findings run counter to Utah political leaders’ persistent claims that wind and solar aren’t as reliable as fossil energy because of their intermittency and that coal keeps Utah electrical bills among the nation’s lowest.

“Renewable resources like wind and solar are now less expensive than other forms of electricity generation across much of the West, and battery technologies complement these renewable resources by storing electricity for when it is needed most," said Julianne Basinger, senior communications manager for Western Resource Advocates’ Clean Energy Program.

“Phasing out coal-fired power is key to reducing the emissions that drive climate change,” Basinger said. "This survey shows that a majority of Utahns believe addressing climate change is also an important reason for Utah to transition to a clean energy future.”

Basinger’s group, along with Utah Clean Energy and the Sierra Club, are pressing Utah’s largest utility to close its Hunter and Huntington power plants earlier than their planned retirements of 2042 and 2036, respectively. Rocky Mountain Power already plans on early retirements for some of its non-economical Wyoming coal units in a shift to wind power.

By an even larger margin, 59% to 18%, the new poll found that voters believe a transition away from coal to renewables is important to improving life for future generations.

But 43% believe such a move would have a negative impact on the Utah economy, versus 38% who believe the impact would be positive. And 40% of the respondents said it would increase the cost of living in the short term, versus 28% who predicted otherwise. Those numbers were reversed, though when the question referenced “long term” impacts on the cost of living.

Non surprisingly, a big majority agreed a transition to renewables would hurt Utahns employed in the coal industry.

Utah polling firm Dan Jones and Associates and Global Strategy Group conducted the survey of 800 voters between Dec. 12 and 18. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

The polling keys into the so-called “Utah Roadmap,” released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute on Jan. 6, about three weeks after the survey was conducted. At the request of the Legislature, the University of Utah’s respected economics think tank produced the report to help improve air quality and address climate change associated with carbon emissions.

The road map points out that Utah wields a disproportionately large carbon footprint per capita because of the state’s heavy, although shrinking, reliance on coal for electrical generation.

“Coal accounts for nearly half of Utah’s carbon dioxide emissions, roughly double the national average,” the report said. “Utah’s CO2 emissions will decrease significantly in coming years as the state’s coal-fired power plants are retired or converted to burn natural gas, which emits about half as much CO2 as coal.”

It outlines a path for cutting carbon dioxide emissions by 80%. Unnaturally high accumulations of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere are considered the leading driver of global warming. Scientists predict emissions must be dramatically reduced to forestall the worst impacts of climate change.

The 24-page road map’s seven recommendations are encapsulated in HCR11, sponsored by Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City. It states in part: “The impacts of a changing climate within Utah, such as stress on water resources, an unpredictable and diminishing snowpack, warmer and drier conditions that result in forest and public lands that are more susceptible to disease, pests and wildfire, and increasing algal blooms in Utah’s lakes are beginning to have an increasingly negative effect on the economic viability of our businesses and industries.”

That resolution, which urges Utahns, businesses, local governments and others to reduce emissions and follow the map as a guide, makes no direct references to power plants. It remains bottled up in the House Rules Committee and has yet to get a public airing.

Utah’s largest coal-fired generator, Intermountain Power Plant near Delta, which exports most of its output to California, is scheduled to switch to natural gas or hydrogen by 2025. The state’s only other major coal plant, the Bonanza Power Plant near Vernal, is set to retire in 2030.