Cameron Carter: Don’t be like Texas. Why Utah must take climate change seriously.

The energy landscape is changing and Utah must change with it.

(Ricardo B. Brazziell | Austin American-Statesman via AP) Brett Archibald tries to entertain his family as they attempt to stay warm in their home the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas, Tuesday, Feb 16, 2021. Anger over Texas’ power grid failing in the face of a record winter freeze mounted Tuesday as millions of residents in the energy capital of the U.S. remained shivering with no assurances that their electricity and heat — out for 36 hours or longer in many homes — would return soon or stay on once it finally does.

The unprecedented blackout in Texas last month left over 4.5 million Americans without power or heat, caused shortages of food, water and other necessities and has killed nearly 80 people so far. Some residents who had access to power are now facing catastrophic electric bills totaling as much as $17,000 for only a few days of electricity.

As shocking as it is, this emergency was entirely preventable.

Ninty percent of the Texas power grid, controlled by the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), is intentionally isolated from the rest of the country. They wanted complete control to make their own rules without federal interference.

Although this has served Texas well for decades, often allowing for lower electricity rates, it allowed them to avoid federal regulations that require consumer protections such as weatherized systems and backup power reserves. Texas chose to ignore these safeguards in favor of short-term profits. Millions of Texans are now paying for that choice with their lives and livelihoods.

After this emergency has subsided, we as a nation must reevaluate our choices and priorities in terms of climate infrastructure. Going forward, we must build sustainable and resilient systems that meet the demands of a growing population and increasingly turbulent climate.

Utah is especially vulnerable to climate change. The Utah Rivers Council estimates that, by 2050, average annual temperatures in Utah will increase by about 3.3°F compared to current temperatures. This would decrease snowpack and water availability throughout the state, increase frequency and intensity of wildfires, decrease productivity of ranches and farms, increase rates of respiratory diseases, and increase demand on existing energy production systems.

As the Utah Legislature grapples with a growing demand for electricity, mitigating these disastrous effects must be a priority. We need to invest in resilient infrastructure and renewable energy, including solar, hydroelectric, wind, geothermal and biomass.

Although progress has been made over the past few decades in terms of emissions reduction, 89% of energy production in 2018 was from emissions-heavy sources like coal, natural gas and crude oil. This is 26% higher than the national average, meaning Utah is glaringly behind on renewable energy development.

Energy infrastructure across the state is also lagging behind. Electricity storage and transmission lines are already approaching capacity limits and constraints, potentially putting Utahns at risk in a climate disaster.

Despite promising in 2019 to improve air quality and address causes and impacts of climate change, the Utah legislature has refused to take significant steps towards sustainability. A few climate bills were introduced this year, but Republican leadership blocked any major progress from being discussed. For example, H.C.R 5 was a non-binding resolution endorsing The Utah Roadmap which calls for 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and 80% reduction by 2050. Legislative leadership refused to assign this bill to a committee, essentially blocking any discussion of the resolution.

Another bill, House Bill 145, would create a target of 50 percent zero-emissions for large electric utility companies by 2030. This bill was assigned to a House committee on Jan. 20, but was never scheduled for a committee hearing or vote.

To vote against a bill is one thing, but to block these bills from even being discussed is a disgraceful abuse of power that hurts all Utahns. Utah has an opportunity to lead the nation in terms of renewable energy development — renewable energy sources are plentiful, investment funds are available due to an annual $1.5 billion budget surplus, and Utah’s rapidly growing population means energy is in high demand — but we must be willing to have these discussions openly and honestly.

The energy landscape is changing and Utah must change with it. Now is the time to invest in resilient, renewable energy sources. Our Legislature is choosing an untenable past over a sustainable future. If they don’t make better choices, we need to elect people who will.

Cameron Carter | Alliance for a Better Utah

Cameron Carter, Murray, is a policy intern at Alliance for a Better Utah.

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