Estimated read time: 8-9 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 Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information.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.
SALT LAKE CITY — The U.S. energy landscape is in an inevitable state of transition, and a new report shows that the Beehive State has the potential to be a world leader in renewable energy production, storage and manufacturing.
Fourteen researchers from the University of Utah, BYU and the University of Idaho on Friday published a comprehensive renewable energy report, drawing on more than 300 peer-reviewed studies, technical reports and articles to provide an overview of how renewable energy is reshaping the global economy as well as a policy analysis looking at how laws and regulations could be updated to allow Utah to capitalize on advances in renewables.
Energy and economics
The rising cost of fossil fuels and the emergence of cheaper renewable energies is one of the main reasons that the energy landscape is changing, said Ben Abbott, assistant professor of ecosystem ecology at BYU and an author of the report.
"Renewables have been making huge advances both in their performance and their cost," Abbott said. "It now is cheaper to produce power with solar and wind than any other energy source. It's the cheapest electricity that's ever been available to humankind — much cheaper than coal and even cheaper than natural gas."
While the intermittency of wind and solar energy was initially a major obstacle in conversations around a transition to renewable energy — as there are days when the sun doesn't shine and days when the wind doesn't blow — advancements and technology have helped to alleviate these concerns.
According to the report, expanding electricity transmission, increasing flexibility of supply and demand, building excess generation capacity to limit dips in renewable resources, deploying distributed energy resources such as rooftop solar and household batteries and electrifying other economic sectors such as transportation, heating and manufacturing are five common approaches to solving intermittency that have proven to be reliable and economically viable.
"Renewables aren't winning because of government subsidies; they're winning because they're higher performance and cheaper to operate," Abbott said.
In fact, fossil fuels receive almost four times as many direct subsidies as renewables do and almost 40 times more subsidies when the pollution of fossil fuels is taken into account, the report said.
"The newest analysis for the United States shows we could have over a 60% decrease in energy costs by shifting to renewable energy, it's really incredible," Abbott said.
The need to move away from fossil fuels
While the report lists a myriad of reasons in support of transitioning from fossil fuels, it focuses on two main arguments: The immense damage they cause to human health and the production of greenhouse gases that are destabilizing the global climate.
"About 200,000 people every year die prematurely in the United States because of pollution from fossil fuels, and globally it's an even larger number — 10.2 million people — that's one in five deaths that are caused by our current energy choices," Abbott said.
These negative health effects also carry significant economic ramifications, he said.
"The current estimates of how much damage is done by fossil fuel pollution puts it around $1 trillion a year in the United States and around $10 trillion a year globally," Abbott said.
"It keeps me up at night, I've got four kids and I don't want them breathing dirty air," he added. "You also can look at it as room for improvement — it's a huge opportunity for us to take this weight off the back of the human family and improve health."
When it came to discussing climate change, Abbott didn't mince words.
"Fossil fuels are what is causing climate change. We're in the middle of a megadrought in the southwest United States, we've seen large increases in wildfires because of climate change, our ski industry is being impacted, the Great Salt Lake is drying up. The list of negative effects goes on and on."
The report says, "The cumulative burning of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution has increased CO2 in the atmosphere by 50%. CO2 is the Earth's thermostat, controlling the partial pressure of water vapor and hence global temperatures of both atmosphere and ocean."
"We need to be moving to renewable energy resources that don't degrade the environment," Abbott said.
How Utah can capitalize off renewables
It's no secret that Utah has been influenced very heavily by fossil fuel production. According to data from the Energy Information Administration, coal, natural gas and crude oil are the top three forms of energy produced by the state.
However, this doesn't mean that Utah doesn't have the capacity to be a leader in renewable energy production, Abbott said.
"Utah has some of the best solar resources in the country. It also has really good geothermal resources and energy storage resources," Abbott said.
The two main methods for energy storage in Utah are lithium-ion batteries and pumped hydro storage technology, where water is moved between reservoirs.
"Utah has some of the best lithium deposits anywhere in the world and with its solar and pumped hydro potential, Utah could really be a huge player in the national energy makeup," Abbott said.
He emphasized the need to look ahead as the energy landscape rapidly changes.
"Today we're primarily fossil fuel-based, but if we look at opportunity for rural communities in Utah, that's all in renewable energy," Abbott said.
Abbott pointed to West Virginia as a cautionary tale in states that are heavily reliant on the fossil fuel industry.
"They (West Virginia) tried to, with laws and regulations, prop up the coal industry and it has continued to collapse despite those kind of artificial fixes just because of the economics of energy right now. We need to be looking ahead and position ourselves for long-term prosperity — especially in these vulnerable rural communities that depend on energy. We need to transition to lithium extraction, solar production, mining of critical minerals," Abbott added.
"This is an opportunity. Whenever there's a big change, it's an opportunity for growth as long as we don't let politics and entrenched energy interests get in the way."
Transitioning in a just way
Though the evidence and data supporting a transition to renewable energy is highly compelling, Abbott stressed the importance of a just transition that doesn't hang those who depend on the fossil fuel industry for their livelihoods out to dry.
"We need to really take a minute and thank the dedicated workers who have provided energy for our state and for our country," Abbott said, adding that his own father was a roughneck who worked in oil and gas extraction in New Mexico. "We need their expertise."
Abbott said that a transition should be looked at as an avenue for creating more jobs, especially in energy-dependent communities.
"One approach that's been used successfully elsewhere is if you have an early retirement of a coal or a gas plant, that's going to generate a lot of revenue because it costs a lot less to run wind, solar and batteries than it does to (run) coal and natural gas. That creates some liquidity in the economy and you can actually use some of that profit to then go back into these communities and ensure that there are worker placement programs and that you're working with the fossil fuel companies as they transition away," Abbott said.
"Many times, workers can keep their job and work with the same company that they were working (with) before, it's just going to be in renewable energy instead of fossil fuels," Abbott added. "It's not going to happen automatically and we need to be really thoughtful about this because we owe a debt, our energy comes from those communities and so we really should be working together collaboratively."
Specifically, Abbott talked about a law that allows cities in Utah to opt into 100% renewable agreements with Rocky Mountain Power.
"Twenty cities in Utah have joined that group, and it's an awesome opportunity because they can then buy the renewable power and right away, transition," Abbott said.
Abbott also talked about how most of the renewable energy produced in Utah is sold out of state, sometimes to states like California that have a renewable portfolio standard, creating a high demand for renewable energy.
"There's no reason why we shouldn't be benefitting from that energy as well. But currently, we only have a nonbinding target of 20% renewable energy by 2025 which is inadequate, and the fact that it's nonbinding ends up meaning that it doesn't change anything," Abbott said.
Additionally, Utah is an "all-of-the-above" energy state, meaning that the state supports and encourages multiple avenues of energy development.
The problem with this, Abbott said, is that it creates an unfair playing field for renewables since fossil fuel producers aren't paying the full price of the energy they produce due to externalities like pollution caused by fossil fuels.
"The market-based way of fixing this would be to implement some kind of fee and dividend system for air pollution and carbon pollution, but the other way to do it would be to create a renewable portfolio standard at the state level," Abbott said.
"The market advantage is already there — renewables are winning, not only in the United States but around the world. We've just got to get our act together and start the revolution here."