The Rohr family recently moved back to Utah. The Beehive State is a place I have always loved, so I was excited about the opportunity to return to my roots. As we set up the utilities in our new house, I took a deeper look at the state's energy landscape. I found a state divided. Which electricity source will keep the lights on in a decade in a state that is driving down two different energy roads?
Utah has an interesting history in the energy sector. Pre-statehood, early coal exploration was important to maintain independence from the communities east of the Rocky Mountains. Historically, Utah was a mining state, home to the largest open-pit mine in North America. The Bingham Canyon Mine, which can be seen from space, has been excavated like a spiral into the Earth for more than 100 years. Copper was the main mineral harvested, but uranium also was mined.
In the last century, uranium was a byproduct of other mineral exploration across the state. During the 1940s and 1950s, the popularization of nuclear power put a focus on Utah to supply the radioactive fuel. More recently, lower prices have curtailed uranium exploration.
“Utah has the nation’s only operating uranium ore mill, which processes uranium ore from mines in other states, as there has been no active uranium mine production in Utah since late 2012,” notes the U.S. Energy Information Administration (https://bit.ly/2WdZaU3). However, as recently as 2020, multiple nuclear plants are in early development phases outside of the metropolitan areas.
Besides traditional energy sources, Utah has a few other interesting projects that may alleviate energy inconsistencies relating to wind and solar power. Near Delta, Utah, a giant ball of salt underground could even out the distribution of these renewable energies. The underground salt dome is used as a giant compressed air tank. During peak production, solar, wind or any other power source can be used to pump air pressure to the salt caves.
When released, the pressure can spin a turbine and create electricity on demand. It can be used to buffer the energy supply, like an enormous lithium battery. With distribution lines running from Delta to Los Angeles, this cave system could be an important piece of the region's energy portfolio, notes the LA Times (https://lat.ms/3oV06sq).
An area of Utah named Roosevelt Hot Springs is famous for geothermal activity (https://bit.ly/2K3ZJ06). The Blundell Geothermal Power Plant has been in service on-site since 1984. With vertical wells drilled 2,500 feet to 6,500 feet into the Earth, this system circulates fluid that reaches 47 F, which powers a turbine and generates electricity. In total, this hot spot generates 34 megawatts of energy.
The three utility-scale geothermal plants in Utah contribute about 10 percent of the state’s renewable energy, per EIA.gov.
Currently, coal remains the major energy source. Since 2017, enormous reserves of fossil fuels in Utah have gathered national attention. Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments were designated as protected lands during the Clinton administration; however, President Trump reduced the size of the protected areas to allow more fossil-fuel exploration.
The redesignation has been challenged in court. These two monuments are hotly contested as if they are a symbol for the larger Utah movement that pits fossil-fuel fans against the renewable energy crowds.
Solar vs. coal
Over the last few years, a subset of Utah decided to abandon subterranean fuel sources and focus entirely on renewable energy.
“In Utah, 23 cities and counties have resolved to adopt 100 percent net-renewable electricity by 2030, representing about 37 percent of Utah’s electricity load,” notes a GreenBiz.com article (https://bit.ly/3abszX1). These Utahans did not want to buy renewable energy credits from other regions. They wanted Rocky Mountain Power, the major local utility company, to build renewable energy power plants locally. They got their wish, but there is a caveat.
In 2019, the Utah state legislature passed The Community Renewable Energy Act, which essentially creates a fork in the road for energy consumers in the state (https://bit.ly/3oVQr4T). The 23 cities and counties pushing for 100 percent net-renewable energy will get their wish from Rocky Mountain Power. The utility company will transition to renewables, but the participating customers will foot the entire bill. However, the rest of the state will not be required to pay for any of the ambitious energy transition plans.
The nonparticipating Utahans served by Rocky Mountain Power will continue with a 63 percent coal and 14 percent natural gas power portfolio. A Sustainability journal article notes that while there are more than 150 cities, counties and states with 100 percent net-renewable electricity goals, only six achieved these goals as of 2020.
Maybe pragmatic, maybe uninterested in the nonmandatory utility price increase, the parts of Utah that historically relied heavily on coal mining and consumption want to keep it that way.
Here is where the gamble comes in. As part of the 100 percent net-renewable plan, those customers who opted in get to keep 100 percent of the benefits associated with the transition. For example, suppose by 2030 coal costs more to mine, transport and burn than solar energy. In that case, the nonparticipating Utahans could be stuck with an old fleet of expensive power plants and ballooning utility bills.
Subsequently, if coal stays cost-competitive with renewable energies, then the nonparticipating areas avoided investment in new power plants that were expensive to onboard and are the same price in continuum. This predicament faced by Utahans is a great analogy for the “looking glass” energy debate. If you could predict the price of coal in 10 years, the decision would be easier.
The EIA stated in 2018 that “66 percent of Utah's net electricity generation came from coal-fired power plants, down from 81 percent five years earlier.” By 2030, if all goes according to plan, 37 percent of Utah's electrical load will be renewable-powered and the riches, or spoils, will go to those same customers.
The Solar Energy Industries Association shows a 38 percent decline in the price of solar over the last five years in Utah. They also project that installed solar capacity in Utah will almost double in the next five years. I would argue that solar has always been Utah’s best energy resource, not any mined resource.
Solar technology was not available 100 years ago, but sunlight is easily the most plentiful energy source. I predict the solar contingent chose the best path forward in Utah. Let’s hope the rest of the state comes around.