Laura Nelson and Scott Baird: Utah celebrates successes for Clean Energy Week

(Photo courtesy of Rick Allis, Utah Geological Survey) A rig drills a geothermal well in Milford, Utah, in August 2017. It is part of a research experiment to find new ways to extract renewable energy from less than ideal locations. The Department of Energy award the University of Utah $140 million to support the project.

Across more than a century of statehood, Utah’s pioneering spirit has forged trailblazing pathways to achieve its remarkable destiny — defying expectations to meet new challenges that come with positive economic growth, a changing climate and an unparalleled energy demand. As we join the nation in celebrating Clean Energy Week, Utah’s leadership continues to be nationally unmatched in driving outcomes across policy, development and innovation to increasingly satisfy consumers’ growing appetite for energy that creates jobs and strengthens security and affordability, while preserving the environment and protecting our air.

Utah’s long-standing, “all-of-the-above,” market-based policy, when coupled with our statewide commitment to identifying solutions across resources, has allowed us to transform our energy economy. For instance, in the last five years, Utah’s renewable energy scene has surged by 150 percent, supporting 6,000 jobs and skyrocketing our state into the top 10 for solar, third for geothermal, not to mention increasing wind, biomass, hydro and energy storage resources.

Additionally, energy efficiency now plays a critical role in our solutions, providing some 30,000 jobs, as we realize net zero communities across the Wasatch Front. Utah is also a lead for advanced technology on carbon capture, and infrastructure that supports advanced, clean solutions for abundant fossil and nuclear resources.

Wise policy, responsible development and innovation has allowed Utah to cut its carbon emissions by 15 percent in the past decade, and we are continuing to realize improvements to reduce other emissions impacting our airshed — even in the face of rapid population growth. Consider that from 2002 to 2014 Utah’s population increased by 600,000 (26%). During that same time, statewide emissions of criteria pollutants declined by 30% — a 46% reduction in per-capita emissions. The entire state now meets federal air quality standards for PM2.5 particulate pollution. And the trend for energy and environmental advancement is expected to continue.

Last year, Gov. Gary Herbert and our Legislature made national headlines when we enacted House Concurrent Resolution 7. The resolution made a bold claim that Utah could reduce carbon emissions with renewable energy in a way that would grow the local economy. The bill calls on Utah to “prioritize our understanding and use of sound science to address causes of a changing climate and support innovation and environmental stewardship in order to realize positive solutions.”

The 2019 legislative session also saw the advancement of significant targets for budgeted air quality investment, with Utah lawmakers appropriating $29 million aimed at improving our air shed. Targeted strategies and programs included an exchange program to replace wood-burning stoves with gas or electric ones, installation of electrical vehicle charging stations, free mass transit on poor air quality days, promoting telecommuting, encouraging Utah’s refineries to produce cleaner-burning Tier 3 fuels and defined research initiatives.

This week represents the culmination of more than a year of defining a unified vision for the future of energy in our state: Herbert has proclaimed this week “National Clean Energy Week” in Utah, one of the first states in the nation to do so, and the Salt Palace is hosting the 19,000 attendee Solar Power International Conference to bring together the people, products, and professional development opportunities that can drive the industry and forge its bright future.

We can have affordable energy and, yes, we can have a clean environment. Along with all of you, Herbert, the Utah Legislature, the Governor’s Office of Energy Development and the Utah Department of Environmental Quality are committed to realizing the results for a robust energy and environmental future.

Laura Nelson is energy adviser and executive director of the Governor’s Office of Energy and Development.

Scott Baird is executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.