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SALT LAKE CITY — Utah Climate Week kicked off on Monday with an optimistic update on how communities in the Beehive State are faring in their goal to procure net-100% renewable energy by 2030.
The details are still shaky, but the overall goal is clear: combine the purchasing power of over a dozen communities, with help from Rocky Mountain Power, to promote new renewable energy sources that by 2030 will offset what they use each year.
Dubbed the community renewable energy program, the goal was set in motion in 2019 with the passage of HB411, which created an avenue to allow communities within Rocky Mountain Power's service area to opt into the plan.
The 10-year plan doesn't mean all of the community's power will eventually come from renewable sources. Instead, enough new renewable power will be integrated into the broader grid to match the output of each community in the plan.
The program is the "first of its kind" in the country, said Christopher Thomas, Salt Lake City's senior energy and climate program manager.
"We've never seen anywhere else where we have a monopoly investor owned utility, who then works collaboratively with a set of communities to try to preference a certain kind of cleaner energy," he said, noting that for the plan to take shape, communities need continued support from the Legislature.
"It will be difficult — I think that's one of the reasons why we are doing a lot of outreach," he said.
The 23 communities, which voted to become eligible in 2019, range from Utah's capital of Salt Lake City to Castle Valley, a town of about 350 people north of Moab. The communities span from the southwest corner to the northern reaches of the state, though most are along the Wasatch Front.
They comprise roughly 37% of electricity sold by Rocky Mountain Power. If the goals are met, Thomas said, the plan could double the amount of solar power connected to the utility's grid in Utah.
I'm confident that it will be affordable. And that's because renewable energy is really the cheapest new energy that you can build.
–Christopher Thomas, Salt Lake City's senior energy and climate program manager
Fifteen communities are moving forward with participation: Salt Lake City, Castle Valley, Grand County, Millcreek, Moab, Park City, Summit County, Alta, Cottonwood Heights, Francis, Hollladay, Kearns, Ogden, Salt Lake County and Springdale.
Meanwhile Bluffdale, Coalville, Emigration Canyon Township, Kamas, Oakley, Orem, West Jordan and West Valley City remain eligible but still need to finalize their participation.
The plan is still in its fledgling stages, and how it will impact utility bills, low income communities — even where the renewable energy will come from — is still unclear.
"I'm confident that it will be affordable. And that's because renewable energy is really the cheapest new energy that you can build," said Thomas, noting that unlike coal or gas, renewable energy projects will be immune to a carbon tax, a provision currently gaining traction among Senate Democrats.
"It could be the case that coal becomes more expensive because of air pollution," he said. "We want to be protected from those kinds of cost hikes in our program."
The timeline, laid out by presenters during Monday's discussion, is as follows:
- 2021 to 2022: Communities will design program rates and cost projections — essentially, how utility bills under the new program compare to existing rates.
- 2022: Rocky Mountain Power will file a program application with the Utah Public Service Commission, which will review projections.
- 2022 to 2023: Once approved, each community will pass an ordinance to finalize its participation in the program.
- 2023 to 2024: The community renewable energy agency will push for the construction of new renewable energy sources, like solar and wind farms, solar batteries or a demand response program, which incentivizes consumers to shift electricity usage during peak periods.
- 2024 to 2030: The program will move communities toward the net-100% renewable energy goal.
The board will vote to approve each project and 60 days before the first program bill arrives, customers will receive two opt-out notices. For three billing cycles after the program takes effect, customers can still opt out, although afterward there could be an exit fee.
The 2019 law also stipulates the creation of a low-income plan committee "to assemble some best practices, coordinate with community groups and develop a kind of a master menu of options that each community that moves forward can draw from," Thomas said.