Utah faces its growing climate crisis

The Daily Utah Chronicle  By Arthur Raymond

Posted: 11/14/07

An alarming evaluation of Utah's climate has brought responses and plans for intervention from a broad range of representatives from government, the power industry, environmental advocacy groups, academia and a concerned citizenry.

Two documents have been presented to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr.'s Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change in recent weeks, outlining strategies for addressing the state's increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

A report prepared by U researchers and others tied a global trend of climate degradation to elevated levels of greenhouse gases. These climate change predictions, which include higher average temperatures, drought conditions and an environment increasingly dangerous to health, are expected to be more significant in Utah than most places in the world.

The strategies both focus on plans to intervene in climate change trends by proposing cleaner ways to meet Utah's ever-expanding need for energy and using resources efficiently.

"Conservation is the easiest and most immediate first step we can take," said Sara Baldwin, community programs associate for Utah Clean Energy. Her group, along with the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, Intermountain CHP Center and American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, prepared the plan outlining the energy efficient strategies. Energy goals in the report were established using Huntsman's target of increasing energy efficiency by 20 percent statewide by 2015.

Conservation plans figure prominently in the report, which lists 23 proposals for action. The proposals address a wide range of methods aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including energy production, building and appliance standards, industrial practices, public sector policy, transportation and education.

The plan contains a number of new approaches to encourage conservation and efficient practices. These include tax credits for residents who build efficient new homes or businesses, a plan to distribute 40,000 kits to weatherize low-income households and a pay-as-you-drive auto insurance plan that would provide financial rewards for reduced driving miles.

Baldwin noted that education is a critical element in achieving efficiency goals. A broad-based campaign to educate the public and a plan to integrate conservation education into K-12 schools are both included in the plan.

The authors of the plan indicate that implementation of their strategies can meet Huntsman's goal by 2015, and that savings would continue to expand past that date.

"Given the tremendous and wide-ranging benefits, we urge policy makers in Utah to make a strong commitment to increasing energy efficiency," Sarah Wright, executive director of Utah Clean Energy, said in a press release issued by Huntsman's office.

Utah's Renewable Energy Initiative Focus Group was charged with devising a strategy to "increase the development of cost-effective renewable energy resources within the electric sector." The group consisted of representatives from state agencies, power companies, environmental groups, academic institutions, financial and legal groups and the public.

More than 90 percent of Utah's electricity needs are provided by coal-fired power plants. Emissions from these plants are by far the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in Utah, according to figures from the Center for Climate Strategies that compiled data for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.

The findings of this report, presented to Huntsman's office on Nov. 9, offered little in terms of consensus opinion, though articulated some next steps in the pursuit of energy alternatives for Utah.

One of the methods for increasing renewable energy sources in Utah would be to require utility companies to meet a minimum required percentage of "clean" power output. The sources of this renewable power could be wind, solar, geothermal, biomass or hydroelectric. Currently, there are 25 states that have adopted RPS programs, and the Oregon plan was used as a model for discussion. The group concluded that "further rate and economic impact studies" would be required.

The group agreed that incentives for renewable energy development are needed.

However, a point of contention was how to fairly evaluate the "real" cost of coal-produced energy. This cost should include not only the production cost but also encompass the cost of environmental and health effects that are the by-product of coal burning. These outside costs are referred to as "externalities." One estimate provided by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment put the environmental and health related costs of coal emission at $4 to $6 billion a year.

At an environmental conference last month, Kent Udell, the U's chair of the department of mechanical engineering and a participant in the focus group, said that he advocated for the estimate of costs associated with coal to be included in the report. These costs did not, however, appear in the final draft, though a suggestion for a "cost-benefit study on externalities" was among the findings.

Other findings highlighted the need to consider improving Utah's power grid and integrating renewable energy into the existing electrical system.