Utah lags behind others in clean energy goal. Is that about to change?

New plan notes Utah will meet its modest 2008 goal of 20% clean electricity by 2025, but most states are more aggressive in the fight against climate change.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Wind turbines, solar panels and hog farms north of Milford on Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2021. Utah unveiled its new energy plan, and it may lead to the state setting new goals for clean energy.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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With Utah on track to meet its 2008 goal of producing 20% of its electricity from clean sources by 2025, it is time to review and reevaluate the goal process, according to a new plan unveiled Tuesday at the Utah One Summit at The Grand America Hotel

Thom Carter, executive director of the Utah Office of Energy Development, stopped short of saying a new goal should be set, but he said the 2008 process that established the earlier goal, which was made by the Utah Legislature in SB202, should be used again.

“As we approach 2025, we believe it is time to reevaluate this 2008 goal,” the report says. “Thirty-eight states have established statewide goals to reduce carbon emissions, including Utah.

“Many states have pursued these objectives through legislative action while others have done so by executive order. We are committed to the best process in order to be successful, which we believe to be a collaborative solution that includes the legislative branch,” it adds. “To accomplish this objective, we will continue to receive input from Utah stakeholders to evaluate pragmatic, market-driven ideas that may improve the state’s 2008 goal prior to 2025.”

Most of those states have carbon goals far beyond 20% renewable electricity, but there has been little interest among Utah political leaders to set any new targets.

“Technology has leapfrogged and costs of clean energy have come down dramatically, so it is certainly time to reevaluate policies like SB202,” said Josh Craft, government and corporate relations manager for the advocacy group Utah Clean Energy. “The fact is, we can no longer ignore the consequences of climate change, but what we can do is address climate change head-on by seizing opportunities to become a national leader in renewable energy, electric vehicles, and high-performance building. Smart action today will reap the incredible economic and social benefits that come with ensuring a healthy future for us and the next generation.”

When a draft plan was released in March, it listed five top-level commitments, building on Utah’s philosophy that the state should foster energy choices for the market to decide rather than make strategic decisions to concentrate on certain technologies.

Those commitments included:

• Backing U.S. energy independence.

• Supporting rural communities that must diversify away from fossil fuels.

• Supporting the mining of minerals needed for renewable energy, including solar panels and batteries.

• Collaborating with local and federal partners on building out electric vehicle charging stations and other infrastructure.

• And backing “any of the above” points.

The final version added a sixth commitment that was not in the draft:

• “Utah is committed to pragmatic, market-driven climate solutions that enable innovative energy production. This includes a focus on supporting Utah-based research and development, ensuring we stay good stewards of our environment for future generations of Utahns.”

Carter said in an interview that this commitment was added because “we felt we were dancing around the issue of climate with our original five.”

His office has detailed the plan in an interactive website, energy.utah.gov/plan, in a map-based presentation that details Utah’s current and future energy resources, with traditional fossil fuels and renewable potential.

It reflects a desire to reshape Utah’s energy sector without giving up the state’s cheap energy rates and the role that plays in Utah’s economic success.

“Our energy sector and prices,” Carter said, “help us lead the nation.”

Carter’s speech was followed by a question-and-answer session with Chevron Executive Vice President Mark Nelson. “Chevron,” Carter said, “has been a phenomenal partner for the state.”

“No doubt the future is lower carbon,” said Nelson, whose company is one of the largest refiners of fossil fuels in the world. He said Chevron is setting its own goals around decarbonization, adding that cleaner fuels under development may be able to compete with electric vehicles as a clean transportation option.

Nelson noted that Chevron started 140 years ago selling whale blubber and kerosene. “Energy has always been in transition.”

The new state plan does not include any reference to carbon tax/dividend plans, which have emerged elsewhere as a way to price fossil fuel energy in a way that recognizes the climate destruction it produces. Carter previously said it is the state’s position that no problem has been solved with a tax.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.