As a 20-year-old college student, I spent a recent Monday not in class, but listening to a highly consequential Utah Public Service Commission hearing. The hearing invited comment on a request by Rocky Mountain Power to reduce its solar energy export credit by 85%, a decision that would jeopardize solar energy development across the state.
As I listened to community members, solar owners and energy entrepreneurs share their concerns, one thing was clear: Rocky Mountain Power’s request is bad for Utah.
As a lifelong Utahn, I have frequently witnessed Rocky Mountain Power lend input and support to environmental initiatives within our state. But in light of Rocky Mountain Power’s effort to undermine Utah’s rooftop solar industry, I question if the company is truly dedicated to sustainability, or if it is simply green washing: marketing itself as environmentally friendly but failing to sufficiently minimize its environmental impact.
In 2018, I worked with a coalition of more than 250 students to introduce a resolution on climate change through the Utah Legislature. This resolution “recognizes the impacts of a changing climate on Utah citizens, encourages the reduction of emissions, and expresses commitment to create and support economically viable and broadly, supported solutions.” Rocky Mountain Power endorsed this resolution, helping us gain the political support to pass it.
In January of this year, the Utah Roadmap: Positive Solutions for Climate and Air Quality was released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute. This report states that “market-based incentives for renewable energy may offer positive solutions for reducing emissions.” Rocky Mountain Power offered input for this report, with a representative from the company serving on the report’s technical advisory committee.
While Rocky Mountain Power appears to be supportive of resolutions and nonbinding commitments to environmental sustainability, in the case of rooftop solar, it fails to walk its talk. Utah is among the top 11 states in the U.S. for solar energy production, with over 300 sunny days each year.
For those who choose to invest in rooftop solar, a process called “net metering” makes solar panels pay for themselves over time. In this process, solar users sell the excess energy that their panels generate back to Rocky Mountain Power for an export credit, lowering their energy costs.
But if Rocky Mountain Power’s request to the Public Service Commission is granted, the average export credit would be reduced from 9.2 cents to 1.56 cents per kilowatt hour, which would effectively kill off residential solar in the state. In the words of Ryan Evans, the president of the Utah Solar Energy Association, “What Rocky Mountain Power is proposing for the new rate structure would grind our industry to a halt in this state.”
As Rocky Mountain Power stifles the solar industry, it continues to invest heavily in fossil fuels. As a result, 66% of Utah’s energy comes from coal-fired power, the energy source that is the largest emitter of climate-altering pollution in the western United States.
RMP’s failure to more robustly invest in alternative energy could be particularly consequential for our state. Utah is among the fastest warming states in the country. Increases in average annual statewide temperatures result in impacts on short-term local weather events, like heat waves, drought, wildfires and flooding. Utahns are worried about these impacts and ready for change. Some 85% of the state’s residents support funding for more research into renewable energy sources, including 83% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats. Despite these trends, Rocky Mountain Power is cutting off renewable energy users at the knees, putting at risk the jobs of the 7,000 people who are employed in Utah’s solar industry.
As Utah’s monopoly utility provider, Rocky Mountain Power has the ability to shift our state’s energy use to be both cost effective and environmentally and socially responsible. The company needs to do more to follow through on its past environmental commitments.
As a young person who will have to live with the consequences of energy choices made today, I plead with the Utah Public Service commissioners and Rocky Mountain Power President Gary Hoogeveen to ensure rooftop solar is a part of Utah’s future and available for future homeowners like me.
Piper Christian is a lifelong Utah resident and a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Research assistance for this article was provided by Jennifer Marlon, an interdisciplinary research scientist and lecturer at Yale School of Environment and the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.