These 18 Utah cities and towns still want clean energy, even as RMP backs off

Communities plan to find their own clean power sources after utility recommits to coal

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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A handful of Utah communities started down the long road to buying enough renewable energy to equal what their residents consume back in 2019.

Five years later, that road isn’t looking any shorter.

Fifteen Utah cities and towns and Salt Lake, Summit and Grand counties collectively formed Utah Renewable Communities with the goal of bringing 100% renewable power to their businesses and residents by 2030, a unique approach that hasn’t been tried in the U.S..

Today all of them get their electricity through Rocky Mountain Power, and together they are more than a fifth of Rocky Mountain’s customers in Utah. But the state’s largest electrical utility recently announced it was dialing back on renewable energy purchases for the rest of this decade, cancelling its 2022 request for proposals for new power sources.

The 18 communities were hoping to piggyback on Rocky Mountain’s clean power purchases, but now they are trying to go it alone and set up their own power purchase agreements with solar and wind energy producers.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“Well, it’s frustrating. We were counting on them to do that,” Millcreek Mayor Jeff Silvestrini said in an interview. “They have more expertise.”

The cities are trying to work with Rocky Mountain to compose their own request for proposals, which must be approved by the Utah Public Service Commission, the agency that regulates electricity in the state.

RMP response

In all scenarios, the cities will still be heavily reliant on Rocky Mountain, which operates the electrical grid in the Intermountain West. Any power the communities buy would still need to be moved across Rocky Mountain’s system.

Silvestrini said he and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall met with Rocky Mountain two weeks ago to ask them to help expedite the process, but he didn’t feel like the company shared their urgency.

“Our goal is to have enough by 2030 to make us be 100% renewable,” said Silvestrini. “The more time that goes by, the harder it is to reach that goal. We did not get any good feedback from the meeting.”

Rocky Mountain spokesman Dave Eskelsen said the company’s cancellation of its request for proposals isn’t impeding the communities’ progress, and he confirmed that Rocky Mountain and the communities plan to file for PSC approval for them to conduct their own solicitation process.

“Participating communities have always had the option to set up their own RFP or negotiate for resources from company solicitations (including the 2022 RFP) that PacifiCorp did not procure,” Eskelsen said. “Because the 2022 RFP was cancelled, the communities have opted to issue their own RFP.”

Even if the communities are successful, residents will still rely on fossil fuel power at certain times. The intent of the program is to sign up enough renewable sources (mainly wind and solar) to equal what they consume, but those renewable sources are intermittent. While that isn’t a true 100% renewable power system, it is still expected to accelerate the conversion to renewables.

Only 7% higher cost?

But that’s only if the group can find enough renewable sources that can be contracted at a reasonable price. Ultimately, it’s the electricity consumers in those communities who will decide if they want to participate. The plan is to opt everyone in, but they will have the chance to opt out if they think the cost is too high.

Early estimates predicted that the renewable option would run about 7% higher than regular service.

“That is certainly our goal,” Silvestrini said. “There are communities that would participate in that range, and they might not if it’s much higher. "

The communities have made contributions, based on their size, to a $700,000 fund to set up the program. So far about half that money has been spent, most of it to hire an energy law consultant and a public relations firm to develop marketing materials.

But now they have to develop an expertise in negotiating power purchase agreements and the ratemaking process.

The 2019 legislation that allowed Utah Renewable Communities requires that it can’t put any of the costs of the program on other Rocky Mountain customers in Utah. In other words, only the people who want to participate should see higher electricity rates. Ratepayer advocates at The Utah Office of Consumer Services and the Utah Division of Public Utilities will scrutinize the rate structure before the PSC signs off.

The communities have applied for a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency grant to help cover startup costs.

Legislature removes deadline

Legislators in the last session tweaked the program in a couple of ways. They changed “renewable” to “clean” energy, with the intent of including pumped hydro storage, nuclear energy and coal power with carbon sequestration as an option for communities.

“There’s nothing that mandates what we choose,” Silvestrini said.

And the Legislature removed the 2019 deadline for applying for the program, effectively opening it back up for others to join.

Silvestrini said that there has been some interest from other Salt Lake County cities.

“We’re not at square one,” Silvestrini said about the timetable. “We have established an agreement with Rocky Mountain, and we’re ready for them to file an application with the PSC.

“Yes, It’s been slower than a lot of us would like to see, but it’s a brand new thing. I’d rather do it right than do it fast.”