Noah E. Miterko: It is in the public interest for Rocky Mountain Power to move to renewable energy sources

Twenty years is not soon enough to retire Rocky Mountain Power’s coal-fired generators.

Brian Maffly | The Salt Lake Tribune Latigo Wind Park, a new 27-turbine power-generating project outside Monticello went on line in March. The 62-megawatt project provides electricity to Rocky Mountain Power. Operator Sustainable Power Group, or sPower based in Salt Lake City, has hired observers who can shut down turbines when eagles are present.

Electricity utility companies around the country are setting specific and aggressive goals to move towards clean energy and eliminate fossil fuels from their portfolio. According to their own website, Rocky Mountain Power (RMP) still generates 74.8% of its electricity from burning coal and natural gas. So why aren’t they pursuing similar clean energy benchmarks for Utah?

The Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) has determined that reducing emissions by 90% by 2028 through the transition to renewable energy and battery storage is the option, among all sources of power, that would result in the lowest cost to its 800,000 consumers. Xcel Energy, servicing 3.3 million customers in eight states, is on a path to reduce emissions 80% by 2030. WEC Energy with 4.5 million customers in four states has committed to reducing its emissions 70% by 2030 and aims to achieve net carbon neutrality by 2050.

Through explicit commitments to investing in renewable energy, storage, energy efficiency and other technologies, these utilities are demonstrating to customers that emissions reduction targets can be achieved at the same or lower rates and with the same reliability as maintaining existing fossil fuel power generation.

A recent poll by Pew Research Center shows that adults in the U.S. are overwhelmingly in favor of policies that would result in the aggressive reduction of carbon emissions. But utilities, like RMP, that operate as regulated monopolies are insulated from market forces that usually reflect the preferences of the public. Instead, the Utah Public Service Commission (PSC) is tasked by Utah law to represent those preferences and to make energy resource decisions “in the public interest,” taking into consideration, among other things, long-term impacts and other factors determined by the commission to be relevant.

Utilities tend to resist the idea of making major operational changes, like a full transition to renewable energy, and RMP’s presentations to the PSC reflect this. The utility has made some steps toward clean energy. They have invested in a few large-scale renewable projects and, under the direction of the Utah Legislature, have supported municipal-led efforts, such as the Community Renewable Energy Program. But analysts have determined that gradual changes around the margins like these aren’t enough to minimize the damaging effects of climate change.

If the costs and reliability of clean technologies have been shown repeatedly to be comparable to fossil fuel power generation, in this race against the clock on climate change, why wouldn’t the PSC and utility be transitioning at a much faster pace?

Often, the excuse given is still cost. However, the latest energy modeling from Lazard’s widely accepted Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis shows that utility-scale renewables and storage are cheaper than coal and cost-competitive with natural gas.

The real reasons some utilities are dragging their feet are more likely political opposition from fossil fuel interests in their jurisdictions, deference to the interests of shareholders in the short term financial gains realized from operating coal plants to the end of their functional life, and in some instances, other company subsidiaries involving things like coal mining and transportation.

Most of Rocky Mountain Power’s coal units will reach the end of their depreciable lives over the next 20 years. This is not soon enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change. Rather than piecemeal projects and excuses, the people of Utah deserve an overarching vision for a clean energy future.

It’s time for the PSC to determine that climate change is “in the public interest,” set aggressive renewable energy transition goals for Utah and evaluate Rocky Mountain Power’s energy resource proposals against those goals and timeframes.

Noah Miterko | HEAL Utah

Noah Miterko is a senior policy associate at Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.