Tribune Editorial: Some of Utah’s oldest inhabitants show new ways to generate power

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) The smokestacks on the Navajo Generating Station coming down on December 18, 2020.

Descendants of some of the first people to live in Utah are showing the way to keep our environment habitable for generations still to come.

They are not alone in this, but people of the Navajo Nation are among the leaders in the move from expensive, dirty and climate-altering fossil fuels as the source of electricity to clean, renewable and, increasingly, lower-cost means of powering our world.

The rest of Utah would be wise to follow, dropping the distraction of many state officials who continue to support the mining and export of coal and competing to see which of them can do a better job of taking full advantage of Utah’s abundant sources of wind, solar, geothermal and other renewable sources of energy.

Near the end of 2020, owners razed what was once the largest coal-fired power plant in the American West — the 2.25-gigawatt Navajo Generating Station which stood on Navajo land near Page, Arizona. Together with the closing of the nearby Kayenta Mine, which provided the coal, the change meant the end of some 750 jobs, most of them filled by Native American workers.

But all involved knew that the writing was on the wall. Along with jobs and revenue, the power plant supplied greenhouse gases and other forms of air pollution. Customers, especially the environmentally minded leaders of Southern California, no longer wanted any part of such dirty power. And competition from the declining prices of solar and wind energy meant the days of the Navajo plant were numbered.

Going forward, though, the Navajo and others who live and work in and around southern Utah have the opportunity to continue to sell and collect taxes on electricity generation, just the kind that doesn’t threaten the planet.

San Juan County has already become the home of 60-megawatt Latigo Wind Park. And a few weeks ago the Navajo Nation signed off of the creation of a 600-acre, 70-megawatt solar project in far southern Utah near Red Mesa.

Neither project is, by itself, going to turn the corner on getting away from fossil-fueled power. But, taken together with other projects in and around Utah, they show the way to a day when we can all happily flip the switch without guilt.

Another Navajo-linked idea is still in the early planning and permitting stages. It hasn’t even won the formal approval of the nation and, even if it does, could take years to get built. But it is a tantalizing view of our future.

The Navajo Energy Storage Station, envisioned for a spot near Lake Powell, would use solar power to pump water from the lake during daylight hours, then run that same water back through a system that would generate electricity when the sun isn’t shining, overcoming the most persistent worry about large-scale solar power.

It’s not only happening in southeast Utah.

Salt Lake City, Park City, Summit County and Utah Valley University have signed deals to get big chunks of their power needs from the 80-megawatt Elektron Solar farm in Tooele County.

Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest power utility, has committed to moving toward more sustainable energy sources such as wind and solar. It has even dangled the possibility of retiring the utility’s giant Hunter and Huntington power plants even before their projected retirement dates that now stretch out as far as 2042.

The Utah Legislature’s 2019 session did produce a measure — House Bill 411 — that helps cities and public agencies buy clean power from Elektron and similar sources. The next step should be legislative and Public Service Commission actions that do not just enable such shifts, but encourage, push, even demand it.

On this Earth Day, we should see that the potential for clean power, jobs and other economic activity, tax revenue and a leadership role in powering the next century is before Utah. If only we will take advantage.