More than a quarter of the state’s population could receive power from net-100% renewable energy by 2030 now that at least 24 Utah communities have opted into a process to achieve that goal with Rocky Mountain Power.

The communities are located in six counties across the state, from as far north as Ogden in Weber County to as far south as Springdale in Washington County. The majority, though, are located in Salt Lake and Summit counties; both of those counties and Grand County also signed on their unincorporated residents before last month’s opt-in deadline.

“We’ve seen it passed across many different kinds of municipalities that reflect the unique, diverse cultures that we have across Utah,” said Salt Lake County Councilwoman Shireen Ghorbani, who introduced the legislation to her body. “And I just think it’s a really important and exciting moment to remember that our government works, and it can work especially on issues we care about at the local level.”

The move was made possible by Rep. Steve Handy’s HB411, which passed last year and created a framework for communities to work with Rocky Mountain Power toward the goal of producing at least as much renewable energy as each uses in a year.

That law, which outlines the process for setting rates and terms of service for the program with the Utah Public Service Commission, also allows for customers to opt out of the Community Renewable Energy Act with their utility provider. Anyone who lives in a community that approved the act and doesn’t opt out will become a participating customer.

“This is incredibly groundbreaking legislation,” said Handy, R-Layton. “There was nothing like it in the country that they could really model this after, so we really invented this.”

The communities that have opted into the renewable energy program will not always receive power directly from renewable energy projects, according to Salt Lake City’s sustainability department.

Instead, “the goal is to catalyze construction of enough new renewable energy resources to meet all net annual community electricity needs on a yearly basis” — meaning that the total electricity needs of the communities that opted in will be met with a comparable amount of total renewable energy generation.

“Participating communities will still likely rely on general system resources to some degree, including power from fossil fuels,” the city noted on its website, “although we expect the creation of new renewable energy resources to result in sizable carbon emissions reductions.”

The Sierra Club praised the decision of the communities that signed onto the renewable energy program in a recent news release, arguing that the move would “protect Utah’s iconic parks and recreational industry from damage caused by harmful pollutants and emissions.”

“The continued reliance on fossil fuels has shrunk Utah’s winters by five weeks in the last 20 years, reducing the snowpack, and increasing the intensity of hot summer days,” the release continued. “A transition to renewable energy would enable Utah to protect its environment and preserve the state’s strong recreational, outdoor industry.”

COMMUNITIES THAT HAVE SIGNED ON TO THE RENEWABLE ENERGY ACT:
∙ Alta.
∙ Bluffdale.
∙ Castle Valley.
∙ Coalville.
∙ Cottonwood Heights.
∙ Emigration Township.
∙ Francis.
∙ Grand County.
∙ Holladay.
∙ Ivins.
∙ Kamas.
∙ Kearns.
∙ Millcreek.
∙ Moab.
∙ Oakley.
∙ Ogden.
∙ Orem.
∙ Park City.
∙ Salt Lake City.
∙ Salt Lake County.
∙ Springdale.
∙ Summit County.
∙ West Jordan.
∙ West Valley City.
- Courtesy of Rocky Mountain Power. Additional communities could have signed on but not yet notified the utility or other stakeholders.

The wider environmental benefits of renewable energy were particularly important to leaders in Salt Lake City, which has some of the most aggressive sustainability goals in the state and was one of the drivers — alongside Park City, Summit County and Moab — in advocating for the legislation.

In a news release, then-Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski called the joining of other cities “very exciting progress” and praised the collaboration among residents, communities and Rocky Mountain Power.

“I look forward to seeing the continued public processes unfold,” she said, “and I want to express my gratitude to everyone who has been involved in helping us reach this huge milestone.”

In 2016, Utah’s capital city passed a resolution to run on renewable energy by 2032 and expedited that goal to 2030 last year through the program with Rocky Mountain Power.

But new Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who took the oath of office at a ceremony, pledged to connect with Rocky Mountain Power on day one of her new administration to coordinate a timeline for renegotiating the city’s agreement on renewable energy to expedite that goal even sooner — to 2023.

Mendenhall said in a recent interview that she was “hopeful” that timeline could be reached but couldn’t estimate her confidence in the actual feasibility.

“The confidence needs to come with more information as I step into the mayor’s role and have that level of briefing and awareness from our Salt Lake City sustainability folks and get into the legal negotiations with our power provider,” which start this month, she said.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Erin Mendenhall is joined by her husband, Kyle LaMalfa, as she is administered the oath of office as Salt Lake City mayor by City Recorder Cindi Mansell, at Salt Lake City Hall on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.
Buy this image

While Salt Lake City is aiming to be even more aggressive with its renewable energy offerings, many communities in the state decided not to opt in to the current 2030 plan over worries about the potential impact on residents’ wallets amid unknown cost increases.

In Sandy, City Councilwoman Brooke Christensen said she and a majority of the body didn’t feel they could support the act — despite an interest in clean, renewable energy — for just that reason.

“We don’t know how much this is going to cost residents, but there would most likely be an increase to their power bills to pay for this,” she said. “And I was really uncomfortable voting for something that I had no idea how much it would cost.”

While Handy acknowledged there may be some initial spikes, he noted that the cost of renewable energy has been declining. Still, he said, municipalities that have signed on are free to back out without penalty for the foreseeable future if they have concerns about costs or other elements of the program.

For Francis Mayor Byron Ames, who leads one of the smallest cities that signed on to HB411, that was a major selling point of the Community Renewable Energy Act.

“It’s not forcing us to do anything,” he said. “We’re not being forced to go switch everybody to windmills and solar and give people something they don’t want. This gives us just a seat at the table to be part of the shaping of the product that’s offered and to have the option of our residents taking a part in this program.”

Now that the opt-in process is over, work begins on city-funded studies of how to implement the renewable energy goals, additional public outreach and rate-making with the Public Service Commission.

“We look forward to working with all these communities,” said Spencer Hall, a spokesman with Rocky Mountain Power. “We really work hard to help our communities meet their goals, so we’re looking forward to meeting with all these cities and communities.”