Critics question state's handling of energy report

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SALT LAKE CITY -- A report completed months ago concludes Utah pays a huge price -- in dollars and lives -- for making electricity with fossil fuel.

Even though state officials held public meetings on the report, some critics wonder whether state officials have backed away from it because they didn't like the answers.

The study concluded Utah power plants cost the state up to $2 billion per year just to pay for the health impacts and the water they use; and emissions from those plants allegedly cause more than 200 premature deaths each year.

Although many experts and insiders are aware of the study, it hasn't been widely publicized.

Findings from Utah energy study
Executive Summary
Currently, electricity generation in Utah is almost entirely fired by fossil combustion, and of that, about 82% is fired by coal. This resource mix is relatively inexpensive in direct costs to both Utah and out-of-state consumers, but results in significant emissions of air pollutants and consumes a large share of Utah's increasingly valuable water resources. The authors estimate that fossil generation in Utah today:
  • consumes about 73,800 acre feet, or 24 billion gallons, of fresh water per year;
  • results in 202 premature deaths per year;
  • contributes to 154 hospital visits per year for respiratory injuries, and 175 asthma-related emergency room visits each year.
We estimate that the health and water impacts from Utah fossil generation have a monetary value of between $1.7 and $2.0 billion dollars per year (2008$), or between $36 and $43 per megawatt-hour (MWh) of fossil generation in Utah, a value similar to the direct costs of conventional electricity generation.
-Co-Benefits of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in Utah

The study was launched in the Gov. Jon Huntsman era and concluded in the Gov. Gary Herbert administration.

Although it drew little notice at the time, state officials say the study was widely disseminated at first -- there were even two public meetings -- but it was sidelined because state experts aren't sure the study is valid.

Critics wonder if state officials just didn't like the conclusions.

Utah generates most of its electricity by burning coal and natural gas. Much of the power is sent to California.

The 100-page study by a Massachusetts consulting firm analyzed how much Utah would gain by shifting to alternative energy. The study was funded with $200,000 in state and federal grants.

The key findings: Power plants in Utah consume about 24 billion gallons of fresh water per year; pollution downwind results in 202 premature deaths per year; and health and water impacts cost Utah nearly $2 billion per year.

The president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, Dr. Brian Moench, says he wonders why state leaders have not publicized the study or noticeably used it in energy discussions.

"Well it could be an oversight. It could be negligence. It could be an attempt to actually suppress some kind of bad news," Moench says.

But state officials say the study is on the Internet for all to see, with a disclaimer that says state agencies haven't determined if the study's conclusions are valid.

"I hardly think that putting it up on our website is burying it," says Francine Giani, executive director of the Utah Department of Commerce.

As you track it down through the website of the Utah Geological Survey, a pop-up window carries a state disclaimer. The state and federal agencies that paid for the study are unwilling to endorse its findings.

"The agencies are in process of evaluating the issues and have not reached any conclusion or consensus regarding the issues," Giani says.

Critics say the report should be widely disseminated to inform debate about the fossil fuel industry.

Moench's organization says state and federal funds paid for the study and it should be used to show all Utahns the true costs of burning fossil fuel.

"It isn't cheap if everyone has to pay the consequences of your doing business," Moench says.

"My understanding is that the purpose of it was to look at the issue of renewable energy, which is a big thing right now," Giani says. "And it's my understanding that it may still be used for that purpose."

A state official told KSL News the assumptions used in the study can be reasonably challenged by reasonable people.

Within the last hour, Rocky Mountain Power told KSL it disagrees with the report. The company reviewed it along with business and industry groups, identified concerns about the report, and concluded it was unreliable.

How those meetings played into the state's handling of the report, we cannot say.


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John Hollenhorst


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