Commentary: PacifiCorp is missing the Clean Energy Bus

(Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune) Rocky Mountain Power operates a research farm near its Huntington Power Plant in central Utah. According to allegations raised by HEAL Utah, the utility irrigates these fields with runoff contaminated from coal ash it stores nearby in two landfills. This waste, generated from burning coals for the past 40 years, poses an illegal threat to groundwater, the group alleges in a letter to RMP parent PacifiCorp.

Across the West, utilities and electricity customers are finding savings by shutting down old coal plants and replacing them with new renewable energy. All evidence shows that PacifiCorp, the parent company of Rocky Mountain Power, can also save money for Utahns by switching off coal plants.

However, PacifiCorp wants to extend the depreciation of their aging coal plants well beyond their life expectancy. Indefensibly, PacifiCorp refuses to disclose costs of this scheme to the public. Make no mistake; the heavy burden of these costs will fall on the shoulders of Utah ratepayers.

Sierra Club recently commissioned a third-party study (conducted by Utah-based Energy Strategies) from previously released data about PacifiCorp’s entire coal fleet. The findings clearly illustrate the majority of PacifiCorp’s coal plants cost more to keep open than if they were replaced by renewables such as wind and solar.

Similarly, the Public Service Commission ordered PacifiCorp to conduct their own coal fleet analysis, which they completed in June. To date, PacifiCorp refuses to disclose their findings to the public. Are we to interpret their concealment as evidence they’ve arrived at the same conclusion?

Utahns have an opportunity to save millions by replacing antiquated coal plants with clean, renewable energy like wind and solar. And our sister states are demonstrating wisdom by taking action.

In Colorado, Xcel Energy announced its plans to replace a third of its coal fleet with wind, solar, and one of the country’s largest storage projects. This is estimated to save Colorado consumers $215 million. Likewise, Oregon has already committed to exiting coal power by 2030. As the customer base for coal shrinks, the costs of maintaining those undesirable plants will be passed on to Utah ratepayers.

All of this should be of great concern.

Utah has the potential to be a trailblazing leader of the new, clean energy economy. As one of the top six states for sun-hours, solar power is an incredibly cost-effective energy source in our state. In fact, the solar industry already employs over 5,000 Utahns with good paying jobs.

I personally was greatly impacted by the housing bubble. My source of revenue had dried up and I was at a crossroads. I was contemplating leaving the state to pursue new opportunities, but instead, I found an opportunity with a well-established, Utah-based solar company. My timing couldn’t have been better, and I have never looked back. Now I make a decent income, own a home, and I am contributing to Utah’s tax base more than I ever have since moving here in 1991. The impact of these 5,000 some Utahns working in clean energy is very real and not only helps grow Utah’s economy and tax base but also conserves our environment and protects our air and water from pollution.

In order to make sure Utah benefits even more from the booming clean energy economy, we must first demand that PacifiCorp be transparent and honest about the costs of their aging coal fleet. And as citizens, we must demand policies that pave the way for Utah to take advantage of our best energy resource, the sun.

Tom Mills, Salt Lake City, is an energy consultant and solar policy advocate at Creative Energies.

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