SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Transit Authority leaders say they now have invested in enough renewable energy resources to cover the entire power grid needs for a streetcar that runs through South Salt Lake and Salt Lake City after consolidating and acquiring renewable energy credits.
They, along with officials from Rocky Mountain Power, celebrated the S-Line achievement Thursday with a gathering at a small park space next to the line. As the streetcar buzzed behind them, leaders for both the agency and power company said they believe that it is just the beginning in the process to reduce carbon emissions caused by two of its biggest sources: electricity production and transportation.
"I think it's an important marquee in the sense that it's a sign of where we need to go in the future," said Carlton Christensen, chairman of the UTA Board of Trustees. "Our service is all about preserving and helping our communities and being a good steward of it."
While UTA does have electric vehicles in its fleet and has looked into further expanding zero-emission technology, the S-Line and its light rail twin, TRAX, technically already had that technology. Both are powered by overhead catenary lines.
But the energy for electric vehicles and electric-powered light rail systems can come from nonrenewable sources like natural gas and coal. James Campbell, director of innovation and sustainability policy for Rocky Mountain Power, said the next step in the fight to reduce carbon emissions is to transition power grids from those types of sources to renewable options, such as solar or wind.
Right now, nonrenewable and renewable sources are blended together in the state's power grid. That means when someone turns on a TV at home or, in this case, someone operates a streetcar through the use of catenary lines, it's impossible to tell what source supplied the power for that to happen. So how can it be determined something is 100% renewable?
There are a couple of ways that can happen. First, a business or individual can buy into a renewable resource, such as a solar farm, and have that energy allocated to their power usage. Second, they can buy renewable energy credits that offset emissions associated with the energy supplied to the consumer.
That's exactly what UTA did here and what other businesses and residents can also do.
UTA first started working with Rocky Mountain Power on renewable sources all the way back in 2008. Most of the investments were made in Rocky Mountain Power's solar farms in southern Utah. It then purchased credits from Rocky Mountain Power's renewable energy-based Blue Sky Program.
"During this past year, we consolidated the credits we had received across many different projects and combined them with renewable credits we accumulated through the Blue Sky Program," Christensen added. "The result, which we applied to the S-Line, covers the entire streetcar lines and energy needs."
Campbell explained those credits, altogether, help offset the usage of power needed to run the S-Line. A third-party agency helped verify UTA purchased new credits so it wasn't overlapping with credits others purchased.
According to Christensen, the result of the S-Line investment is the removal of 1,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide, or "taking hundreds of cars off the road."
The future of renewables
UTA has plans for more electric buses in the future and has also at least looked into the same for FrontRunner. Christensen added it's possible that one day the TRAX overhead catenary lines could be powered by renewable energy sources but there is no timeline for that since it's a much bigger system that requires more energy.
More renewable sources to produce energy would make it possible. Rocky Mountain Power expects to tack on 5,000 more megawatts from renewable resources over the next decade as it slowly transitions more into low-emission and renewable sources, according to Campbell. More solar farms in Utah and wind farms in Wyoming are in the works to make that happen.
He added that it's meaningful that UTA has invested in electricity at the same time.
"It's a part of the solution to our local air quality challenges," Campbell said. "With transportation being one of those major sources, it's really important that we move our transportation systems to be fueled by electricity, which is zero-emitting, and then we have to make sure that the electricity is being supplied by clean or renewable resources so that way — that's really the ultimate solution to how we address our pollution."
Meanwhile, the plan is to also keep the S-Line 100% renewable even as UTA expands the line. The Utah Legislature approved funding this year to extend the line to Highland Drive in Salt Lake City's Sugar House neighborhood. From there, Salt Lake officials say it will either move north or south but the planning remains ongoing.
"Transit, in general, is a great way to maximize any energy use altogether," Christensen said. "As our community continues to grow and people return back to work, I hope they'll consider transit as a part of that solution. We know it's not everything but we know it's an important part."