Utah’s energy producers should learn to follow the sun, the Editorial Board writes

SITLA provides an example of how investments in sustainable energy can pay off.

The official motto of the state of Utah is “Industry.” Which, more cynically, might be read as “Follow the Money.”

And which, more hopefully, might soon become, “Follow the Sun.” And the wind. And geothermal.

Utah would have a lot to gain, both economically and environmentally, if its business and political leaders would seize what is clearly a giant potential for the state’s private and public sectors to move away from their dependence on fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy.

But, as a report the other day from The Salt Lake Tribune’s Innovation Lab explains, there is a disconnect, both politically and physically, between our potential and its realization. One part of the problem is that the large expanses that are well suited to provide open space for solar arrays and wind farms are, by their nature, far removed from the interstate transmission lines that would carry the low-carbon juice not only to the populous Wasatch Front but to the energy-hungry, and environmentally aware, markets in Nevada and California.

Some leadership in this space is being provided by Utah’s School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or SITLA. That’s the agency that manages some 3.4 million acres of government land around the state, acreages that were granted by Congress to Utah when it became a state in 1896.

SITLA’s statutory charge is to turn those lands — through leases, swaps, sales or other deals — into the greatest possible amount of cash to support the state’s public schools and a few other public service organizations. Its mission is to raise money, not awareness or social responsibility.

But that hasn’t stopped the agency from becoming a leader in the sustainable energy business. SITLA reports that, by leasing land for sustainable energy projects and transmission lines, its fiscal 2020 annual income from renewable energy was more than $1.2 million. That’s some $445,000 from solar, $418,000 from wind, $285,000 from energy storage and $70,000 from wind.

The bulk of that development so far is in Beaver and Millard counties, communities that have not shared in the economic boom found in the Provo-to-Ogden corridor and could really use the boost in jobs and tax base.

This is significant because, for much of its existence, SITLA found that it’s biggest cash cow was the fossil fuel business. But the future of the agency’s investments, as of the entire Utah economy, is moving away from oil and gas and toward other kinds of rural development.

Last year, for the first time, SITLA earned more money from its investments in rural land development projects, such as the newly approved 100-acre Mineral Village vacation resort near Kanab, than it did from oil and gas leases. That project, to include vacation homes, rentals and a hotel, is expected to make some $15.7 million for the state — specifically for the University of Utah’s Miner’s Hospital.

Another step Utah’s leaders could take would be to join other states in legislating a requirement that electric utilities serving them draw a minimum percentage of their power portfolio from renewable energy of one kind or another.

Other western states have, by law, commanded the utilities that serve them to meet renewable goals of different levels of ambition over the next couple of decades. California, for example, has mandated that its utilities get 60% of their power from carbon-free sources by 2030, moving to 100% clean energy by 2045. Nevada expects to get to 50% clean energy by 2030 and has set a non-binding goal of 100% carbon-free by 2050.

Those are not only noble goals, they also create a prime market for all the clean energy Utah can generate.

Utah, sadly, has only a meek voluntary target of getting to 20% renewable power by 2025. It should be a lot more.

Pushing Utah power suppliers toward ever-higher amounts of renewable energy production will inspire innovation and advancement that will not only provide investment, jobs and tax base but also pull our weight toward a future where our planet’s survival isn’t threatened by the way we power our lives.

If those utilities need help from the state to realize that potential, the state should be ready to lend a hand.