Scott Williams: The time for a clean energy economy is now

Courtesy photo The 104-megawatt Utah Red Hills Renewable Park, the state's first large utility-scale solar farm, has 340,700 panels, installed on 632 acres west of Parowan and will generate enough electricity to power 18,500 homes.

In past Utah Economic and Energy Summits, when discussing what sources of energy should be pursued and incentivized by the state — from coal to natural gas to solar and more — the answer has been “all of the above.”

This year’s summit, held Oct. 26, focused on prolonging the life of Utah’s fossil fuels while also embracing renewable energy and storage opportunities.

But Utah’s population is growing, the climate is changing, and the cost trends for generating electricity are becoming established and we no longer have the luxury of considering all available modes of power generation as we have in the past, which is akin to addressing world hunger with everything from flour to caviar. Each potential power source should therefore be ranked according to its long-term cost, reliability and sustainability and those that rank the highest should be prioritized.

Utahns have enjoyed famously low energy rates over the years, and much of this has been propelled by cheap coal, mined and burned here in Utah. But the prices for renewables have been out-competing fossil fuel. The levelized cost of coal has remained steady while the cost of solar and wind energy has drastically declined, spurred on by increased efficiency, more rapidly deployed production volume and innovation.

As renewable energy emerges as a financially preferable alternative to traditional fossil fuels, companies like Rocky Mountain Power are investing heavily in utility-scale wind, solar and storage projects to meet a growing demand without drastically increasing rates for customers.

But while major utility companies, the renewable industry and businesses are preparing for this energy transition, Utah continues to promote policies that throw a lifeline to the declining fossil fuel market. The $20 million pledge to bailout the Kentucky-based company at the center of the controversial Oakland Coal Port and the federal Coal F.I.R.S.T program touted at the Summit which has spent $118 million in taxpayer dollars to prop up the coal industry are two of many examples.

But as the transition to renewables accelerates, our state must ensure that impacted communities are prepared not only to successfully diversify their economies and provide their residents with new job skills, but to thrive well into the future. Doing otherwise is an injustice to the towns and workers who have powered Utah for generations.

Our future power generation strategies can help alleviate, rather than exacerbate the climate change problem. But this depends on decisions by our leaders, many of whom, like Sen. Mitt Romney and Reps. Ben McAdams and John Curtis, have acknowledged our changing climate and the need for action. The Utah Roadmap, created by a panel of experts at the behest of the Utah Legislature, outlines a rational path forward. And the recent Utah Climate and Air Quality Compact, issued by Utah business and civic leaders, is a call to adopt the Roadmap’s mileposts and principles.

Critics of renewables frequently cite baseload reliability as a concern that modern technology cannot provide in a way that fossil fuels can. But the traditional understanding of baseload reliability is an outdated notion that ignores how the variability of renewables can be supplemented by storage, grid integration, distributed generation, efficiency, demand management and other technology. Those who say these strategies will never be affordable said the same thing about solar power 15 years ago and were proven wrong.

Speakers at the summit brought forth their visions for Utah’s energy future — some innovative, some clinging onto a bygone era. Utah has a viable path forward if we have the will, and then it will be up to our decision makers to clear that path to an affordable, cleaner and safer energy future.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., is executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.