How Utah can power cars, homes and commercial buildings with electricity, Editorial Board writes

Consumers, corporations and government must join to move away from fossil fuels.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) A Utah electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 6, 2020.

“I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

-- Dwight Eisenhower

The need, the opportunity, the market forces, the developing technology and the ethics of a rising generation are aligning.

If Utah does not rapidly transition its energy infrastructure from fossil fuels to electrification it will just about have to be because some powerful people deliberately stood in our way.

We must not let them.

We all know the stakes.

Locally, air quality along the Wasatch Front and in the Cache Valley is unacceptably awful. It is better than it was, in many ways, thanks to cleaner-burning fuels and more efficient automobiles and household appliances, most of it federally mandated. But the bad air is still a danger to public health in our state, damaging lungs and shortening lives.

Globally, the evidence of climate change is all about us. Rising temperatures, shrinking lakes, wildfires, floods alternating with drought. Utah lawmakers who have stood up to take notice of the shrinking Great Salt Lake aren’t really being serious about the problem or its cure if they are not also as well facing the threat of a warming planet.

This double threat, we all know, rises from an unending dependence on fossil fuels such as coal and oil. Natural gas is cleaner and cheaper than its hydrocarbon siblings and will reasonably last the longest. But we will have to learn to live without it, too. And, in broad terms, we know how.

Cars, trucks, public transit, homes and commercial buildings powered by electricity, not gasoline, diesel or natural gas. Electricity that itself comes from clean energy sources such as solar, wind or geothermal, sustained by next-generation batteries, encouraged by tax breaks and subsidies that repay the taxpayers many times over, not just in cash but in better health and a safer environment. Power that is distributed on a secure grid and conserved by the kind of 21st century building codes that, so far, the Utah Legislature has been loathe to adopt.

Some of the basics were outlined in a forum last week, sponsored by The Salt Lake Tribune, with hopeful voices from government, academe and the energy sector. That meant Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who launched her political career as a clean-air activist; James Campbell, who carries the very hopeful title of director of innovation and sustainability at PacifiCorp/Berkshire Hathaway Energy, Rocky Mountain Power’s parent company; and Samuel Jensen Augustine, director of infrastructure, capital improvements and sustainability at the University of Utah.

All brought hopeful messages from the future, not least among them the fact that “sustainability” is increasingly a government, academic and corporate value.

Campbell said the mix of power sources that supplies Rocky Mountain Power -- which serves most of Utah, large parts of Wyoming and parts of southeastern Idaho -- is already down to 48% coal and up to 30% renewables. There is reason to hope, he said, that RMP’s grid will be down to net zero emissions by 2050.

There is a good argument to be made that that’s not fast enough. But it is a hopeful example of how business can get with the program, not only accepting the need for carbon neutral goals but leading out on them and realizing how, in the long run, the boost the bottom line.

Augustine explained that the University of Utah has run the numbers and decided that all new buildings will be fully electric moving forward. It just adds up, he said.

Mendenhall expressed some admirable optimism for someone who has been watching Salt Lake City’s air quality for many years. She said that her city, and many others, have been shifting their municipal fleets to electric vehicles and have committed to drawing all the power city operations use from sustainable sources by 2030, or sooner.

The mayor rightly noted that every great leap forward in human technology has been tied to advances in energy -- animal power, watermills, fire, coal, natural gas, electricity. Now, with clean power, it’s the next generation’s turn.

The market that is already moving.

Locally, builders such as Ivory Homes and Garbett Homes are stressing green construction, all-electric options and built-in charging ports for electric vehicles. Nationally, big automakers such as Ford and VW are catching up to once-outliers such as Tesla, taking out big ad buys to promote electric vehicles that include such American icons as pickup trucks and Mustangs.

While all this is happening, Utahns need to get the attention of their Legislature and their congressional delegation and push them to move away from state and federal subsidies or other support for increasing fossil fuel development and use. The market will still demand those sources for a time but, for as long as it does so, the market can pay for them.

If voters, consumers, homeowners and their government officials make the right decisions, it won’t be that long before the market turns away from dirty dinosaur guts as the primary fuels of our society and bring us clean energy in abundance.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly described the mix of power sources supplying Rocky Mountain Power as that which supplies Utah. RMP serves most of Utah and parts of Wyoming and Idaho.