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Sun Block

Critics say Rocky Mountain Power’s coal addiction makes the utility hell-bent on stalling clean energy in Utah



In a 1995 episode of The Simpsons, Mr. Burns stares grimly out the window of the office of his nuclear power plant as he explains to his assistant Waylon Smithers that he cannot yet be proud of his company’s success, “not while my greatest nemesis still provides our customers with free light, heat and energy. I call this enemy ... the sun.”

Burns then shows his assistant his latest plan to corner the Springfield energy market: a giant metallic fan that would block out the sun and cast the town in perpetual darkness. “Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I will do the next best thing—block it out!” Burns says proudly, ignoring Smithers’ concerns that the project will destroy all plant life, make the town sundial useless and that “owls will deafen us with their ceaseless hooting.”

Literally blocking out the sun may be possible only in a cartoon, but clean-energy advocates say that in real life, Rocky Mountain Power, a utility that in Utah operates as a regulated monopoly, can block the development of renewable energy projects in the state—and without having to spend a fortune building a giant sun shield.

Rocky Mountain Power has to ask the Public Service Commission to approve increased rates and fees, such as when RMP recently attempted to impose a $4.25 net metering fee on the 2,000-plus Utahns who have solar panels installed on their homes. The fee was rejected in August by the Public Service Commission, but supporters of clean energy in Utah have more battles to fight.

RMP is involved in multiple skirmishes with clean-energy advocates over proposals to set the amount RMP would be required to pay renewable-energy producers who want to use RMP’s grid to transmit clean power. If RMP can convince the Public Service Commission to set those costs low enough, it could effectively stall the development of renewable-energy projects by making them too costly to develop.

“We probably have close to 450 or 500 megawatts [of renewables]—which is close to the capacity of a coal plant—in contracts that have been signed,” says Sarah Wright, head of the advocacy group Utah Clean Energy. Though the contracts have been signed, the projects are in a holding pattern, she says, while the group waits to see what price they will get for their energy before they can be developed.

“If the changes that Rocky Mountain Power is proposing take place, it will basically stop all that development,” Wright says.

David Eskelsen, a spokesman for RMP, challenges the idea that solar will be stopped. He cites the company’s ownership of 1,000 megawatts of wind power and 800 megawatts purchased from other developers as proof that RMP cares about clean energy.

“I can’t think of an organization that has done more to bring renewable energy to Utah customers than Rocky Mountain Power,” Eskelsen writes via e-mail.

But, he adds, customers need reliable power, no matter the source.

“We agree that many customers want renewable options,” Eskelsen says. “Customer opinion is also clear that high reliability and reasonable price are still very important, so renewable sources must be competitively priced.”

And though clean air is becoming more of a priority for average Utahns, economic development remains a greater concern for Utah’s government officials.

RMP has a government-regulated monopoly on power production in Utah, and advocates say the company’s clout among coal-friendly politicos also gives it a near monopoly of political power when it comes to ensuring Utah continues to be fired up by fossil fuels.

In other states, RMP and its parent company, PacifiCorp, has had to meet requirements such as setting standards for providing a certain amount of renewable energy in its portfolios. In California, the company’s portfolio must be 33 percent renewable by 2020. But in Utah, where the bottom line is jobs and economic development, RMP simply has a renewable portfolio “goal” of 20 percent by 2025. When the goal was set in 2008, the state allowed the utility to retroactively count renewable energy produced by a hydropower project going back to 1995 as part of that 20 percent. The goal also includes a caveat: The 20 percent must be “cost effective,” meaning the utility can look forward to kudos from the state if it meets that goal, and shrug its shoulders if it doesn’t.

Critics say that in addition to the state deciding not to tie down the free market by requiring RMP to clean up its portfolio, few in the government are concerned that RMP may be blocking development of renewable, profitable energy here in Utah, one chunk of coal at a time.

Sun Rush
Ros “Rocco” Vrba has been in the clean energy business since 2006, working on six windfarms for RMP and on more than 50 renewable energy projects across the country, eight of which are now fully operational and providing electricity to utilities from coast to coast. He’s currently working to develop renewable projects in Utah, and says the state could be the site of a potential clean-energy bonanza.

“We have an amazing solar opportunity in Utah,” Vrba says. “Absolutely amazing.”

Vrba says there’s plenty of potential profit in solar energy, since Utah’s geography blesses the state with high temperatures, a dry climate and clear skies. More than once, he says, he’s seen a windmill on a barren patch of dirt give a hardscrabble community an economic shot in the arm. Much like traditional energy sources, Vrba says, solar and other clean-energy projects present the greatest opportunities to rural communities that may be lacking in jobs and economic development.

It’s not just green believers like Vrba who see a sun rush on the horizon. In March 2014, the investment behemoth Citigroup released a report heralding the beginning of the “Age of Renewables.” The report says the market is primed for renewables because their costs are coming down and, in the long run, the resources provide stability for ratepayers and investors that carbon can’t keep up with, given increasing regulations and the immense volatility of fossil-fuel commodities.

The report says that renewable costs “continue to decline and are increasingly competitive with natural gas peakers,” in reference to the natural-gas plants that switch on during periods of high energy demand. The report lauded a decrease in the price of photovoltaic solar panels and a longer, more stable life cycle of energy produced by renewables.

According to a July 1, 2014, report by Bloomberg Energy News Finance, “Solar power will top clean energy installations in every region over the next decade and a half.” And it won’t be because of government assistance propping up the industry; public incentives actually have been scaled back. Instead, a “glut of solar and wind manufacturing capacity” and other innovations will help provide an estimated 800 gigawatts of rooftop and utility-scale energy by the year 2030. “This will be driven by economics, not subsidies, as our analysis suggests that solar will be fully competitive with other power sources by 2020,” the Bloomberg report states.

While the Bloomberg report credits Asia as having the largest private-sector commitment to renewables, it also sees a similar trend in the United States.

Vrba says it’s an opportunity not to be missed; Utah needs to wake up and see the sunshine.

“I think it’s important we continue to create a revenue base in our home state, and this is one of the forms of natural resources that is available to us,” Vrba says. “I think it’s not different than oil and gas may have been at the early part of the century. Renewables has its time now, and it’s becoming more and more sought after. It just makes simple sense.”

Sarah Wright of Utah Clean Energy says ratepayers are hungry for renewable projects because they’re a safe and stable bet going into the future. After the cost of steel in the ground and panels pointed at the sky or windmill blades in the air, they have no “fuel” costs, and maintenance costs are relatively flat compared to fossil fuels, providing rate stability for the energy customer.

“It’s like having a bond in your investment portfolio,” Wright says. “You build solar and you know what it’s going to cost today and you know what it’s going to cost 20 years from today.”

While that may keep coins in the pockets of average homeowners, it doesn’t exactly profit a utility like Rocky Mountain Power, which has almost all of its eggs in the carbon basket. RMP’s current energy mix—the energy it sells its customers—is 65 percent coal and 10 percent natural gas, and that doesn’t count the market purchases it makes, which are often natural gas as well.