Tribune editorial: Utah makes it way too easy for Rocky Mountain Power to delay its shift to clean energy, and put the cost on you. There goes your tax cut.

It’s just that it is so depressing that Utah — a state with lots of sun, wind, wide open spaces, an entrepreneurial ethos and top-flight research universities — isn’t leading the way forward.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Hunter Power Plant with the San Rafael Research Center in the foreground, in Emery County near Orangeville, on Thursday, July 21, 2022.

“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” — Darth Vader

Imagine, if you will, a 1910 session of the Michigan Legislature in which lawmakers were keen to preserve the generations-old reliance on horse-drawn transportation. Because it seemed to them that the old ways worked well and were unfairly threatened by these unproven, newfangled motorcars being turned out by the upstart Ford Motor Company.

In such an alternative history, Michaganders might have taken actions similar to the drive in the 2024 session of the Utah Legislature to push back on moves to create, and profit from, low- and no-carbon energy sources and instead cling to another generation of coal-fired power generation.

Even in this Twilight Zone, it is difficult to picture Henry Ford supplanting his dream of motorcars for the masses and instead turning his innovative manufacturing processes to making horseshoes and buggy whips.

In 2024 Utah, the horseshoes and buggy whips are King Coal, the motorcars are new sources of energy and Ford Motor is Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp.

Except Rocky Mountain Power is not so confident in its ability to create a better future. That’s bad news, for Utah and for the planet.

New laws shift costs and risks from utilities to ratepayers

That company’s leadership, taking shelter behind coal-friendly laws passed by the Utah Legislature and signed by Gov. Spencer Cox, has formally abandoned plans to accelerate the retirement of its two giant coal-fired power plants in Utah, plans that had included serious shifts to renewable sources of energy.

The utility’s latest 20-year plan, released last week, would keep the Hunter and Huntington plants in Emery County stoked with coal through their originally planned retirement dates of 2036 and 2042. As recently as last May, the company had been planning to close both of those climate-destroying carbon bombs no later than 2032.

The company is also shelving, for now, its plans to go long on solar, wind and battery storage and a new kind of nuclear power plant.

Considering the short-term thinking that for-profit, investor-owned corporations often are forced to follow, the backsliding makes some sense.

PacifiCorp’s now-abandoned move away from coal was largely driven by the fact that states where it does most of its business — California, Oregon and Washington — have mandated a phase-out of buying any power from that dirtiest-of-all source.

But all those new solar cells, windmills, batteries and nuclear power plants are expensive, even if they promise significant payback over the long haul. And PacifiCorp is seriously short on cash, facing multi-billion dollar judgements in Oregon for causing a series of wildfires.

Sticking with coal can be awfully pricey, too, given fluctuating costs of the commodity, long legal fights over tougher federal air quality regulations and the risk of still more damage lawsuits associated with wildfires.

But Utah’s retrograde legislation shelters utilities from much of the costs and risks of coal, and places them squarely on the backs of the state’s ratepayers.

That adds up to some serious incentives for RMP to stick to the most intense form of carbon.

And there goes your tax cut.

Under the new laws, Utah’s Public Service Commission is now instructed to assume, when setting a utility’s rates, that coal-fired power is the lowest-cost/lowest risk option. Even if it isn’t. And ratepayers will be assessed an estimated $3.70 a month each to create a kitty to cover the costs of lawsuits over future wildfire damages in Utah.

The transition from carbon to renewables is going to be difficult in any event. And RMP might have taken these backward steps even if our Legislature hadn’t been so encouraging.

It’s just that it is so depressing that Utah — a state with lots of sun, wind, wide open spaces, an entrepreneurial ethos and top-flight research universities — isn’t leading the way forward.

The future of investor-owned utilities may be limited

RMP’s boss of bosses, iconic investor Warren Buffett, has publicly mused that making and selling electricity may soon be a loser for the private sector. Too many uncertain costs. Too much negative impact on the environment, which leads to too much government regulation.

It might, Buffett says, be time for that job to fall to public agencies, to outfits that can take a longer view of things, don’t have to make profits for investors and can focus all their efforts on the public good. A public that wants power-generation to weigh as lightly on their wallets, and their lungs, as possible.

It might. Though recent experience has shown that, in Utah, at least, a public power agency might be required to stick with the fuels of the past and allow other states to soar into a clean-energy future without us.