See where Rio Tinto is building a solar farm and why it’s getting a break on fees

Salt Lake County plans to lower permit prices on future solar projects, too.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Kennecott's Bingham Canyon Copper Mine is shown in May. The company is planning a 5,000-megawatt solar farm just below the mouth of the canyon.

The Salt Lake County Council gave Rio Tinto Kennecott a nearly $85,000 discount on its building permit for a new solar farm Tuesday, and the county acknowledged its permit system needs to be updated to lower the fees on other potential solar projects.

Without the adjustment, Rio Tinto would have to pay the county $150,170 for a permit for the 5,000-kilowatt solar farm. Most of the fee is based on the county’s $30-per-kilowatt permit rate for solar energy installations. Instead, the company will pay $65,899.

“It was never the intent for a solar farm to be charged the same rate as a residential solar installation,” Council Chair Laurie Stringham said. The discount passed unanimously at Tuesday’s council meeting.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

In a letter to the council, Trent Sorensen, chief building official with the Greater Salt Lake Municipal Services District, said his office intends to recommend new language to better set the permit rates for solar projects, but the Rio Tinto project has been fast-tracked and can’t wait for that adjustment. That is why he recommended the discount.

The Municipal Services District handles building permits and other services in the unincorporated county.

All of the power generated will be consumed by the company’s mining, milling and refining operations along the east slope of the Oquirrh Mountains. The farm continues the company’s effort to reduce its air pollution and carbon footprint.

In 2019, Rio Tinto announced it was closing its 75-megawatt coal-fired power plant in Magna. That facility was the last coal-fired plant along the Wasatch Front. The power produced there was replaced with renewable energy from Rocky Mountain Power.

In another nod to a clean energy future, the company also recently started refining tellurium at its Magna facility. Tellurium is used to make solar panels, and about half the world’s supply comes from China.

“Rio Tinto Kennecott is committed to a sustainable future,” the company said in a statement. “That’s why as part of our decarbonization strategy, Rio Tinto Kennecott is planning to increase the amount of renewable power it produces on its property to meet part of its power needs.”

The solar farm will cover 30 acres near the mouth of Bingham Canyon below the company’s open-pit mine. It will generate approximately 70 gigawatt hours of electricity a year. That would be enough to power about 7,500 Utah homes.