Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes
This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.
FAIRVIEW, Sanpete County — A Murray couple looking to build Utah’s next solar farm is hoping it may help in the state’s quest to add 25,000 new rural jobs within the next four years.
Matthew and Amy Werling recently purchased an open plot of land in Fairview to invest in one way or another. The Werlings believed the land, undisturbed by trees, would be the perfect location for a solar farm.
“We had been thinking about solar energy for at least three years,” Amy Werling said. “There’s no solar farms out there, and there’s potentially a need and (it can) bring more jobs. We wanted to see that option first.”
After much thought and coordination with Rocky Mountain Renewable Energy's Alan Naumann, that’s the direction they hope to take with the land.
“The benefits we see long term — aside from just a growing industry — is you have a source of energy there that’s basically inexhaustible,” Matthew Werling said. “We wanted to find a way to tap into it and help cities or states or whatever to capture that power.”
The Werlings will present their case for rezoning the land to be used as a solar farm at the Sanpete County Planning Commission on Wednesday.
While the Werlings hope to provide a clean and renewable energy source to the area, they are also teaming with Naumann and Rocky Mountain Renewable Energy to see if their venture can provide jobs for rural Utah.
Naumann said his group will study 15 rural towns and cities, including Fairview and Manti in Sanpete County, to study how buildings, population and a rural town’s policy can affect the growth of solar industry jobs. It is working with state economists and experts.
“The benefits we see long term — aside from just a growing industry — is you have a source of energy there that’s basically inexhaustible." - Matthew Werling
It’s a study inspired by Gov. Gary Herbert’s goal to create 25,000 new rural jobs over the next four years, which Herbert said during his State of the State address in January.
“We’re going to travel the state and discover which local utilities are more interested, which jurisdictions are more interested in solar — which companies and local electricians would like to learn solar,” Naumann said. “It will be a diverse study. It won’t be very narrow. It’s going to be broad.”
Naumann said researchers are hoping to see how viable solar energy is to creating rural jobs, reviewing how solar farms mesh with town policies toward solar energy. Though the Utah Legislature voted to not extend the state’s tax credit to homeowners using solar energy, those tax credits still apply to businesses, Naumann said.
“With this solar farm, there are incentives with the state that are available — small, but they are there,” he said. “A byproduct of this study might say, ‘well, you might want to bring back that incentive for rural areas if jobs are your priority.' It’s a way that the study might possibly support better policies toward the solar energy in the future.”
Naumann added he has been in contact with other institutions, including the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute’s Economics and Public Policy director. A call to the director’s office was not returned.
While it is unknown now how many rural jobs solar energy can bring, Naumann hopes the group will be able to find a reasonable number toward Herbert’s 25,000 goal.
Utah has seen major growth in the solar industry in recent years. The state added more than 1,700 solar industry jobs in 2016 and now has about 4,400 solar industry jobs, according to The Solar Foundation’s 2016 National Solar Jobs Census. As of 2016, Utah was ranked 14th in the nation among solar industry jobs and seventh among states per capita.
In 2016, Utah was second in the nation solar capacity installed, jumping to 1,489 megawatts installed. Ryan Evans, president of Utah Solar Energy Association, attributes much of the 2016 rise, however, to a rush to complete solar projects with the future of federal tax incentives unknown in late 2015.
Those rates, he said, are about 30 percent and will gradually slide down to around 24 percent in the future. The incentives are given to encourage growth in the industry by curbing prices and creating jobs.
Nevertheless, Evans said the future for solar energy is bright even if 2017 won’t be as large of a jump as 2016. As one of the sunnier states in the country with areas of wide open space, he said Utah’s geography helps in attracting solar industry business. He said current business deals in place also help, though he added the state’s net metering policy may be changed in the future.
“It’s definitely reached a good point. It’s consistent; it’s steady. We expect that to continue here and definitely expect for utility projects to continue to be developed across the state,” Evans said, regarding the future of Utah’s solar industry. “It’s a growing industry that I don’t see — unless there’s major policy changes — I don’t see it going away anytime soon. I think it’s a great thing for the state of Utah.”
If the Werling’s solar energy farm plan goes through Wednesday, they hope it will lead to the continued growth of the industry and even rural jobs for the state.
“More and more people will be doing this,” Amy Werling said. “Utah is a great place for solar energy for many reasons.”