SALT LAKE CITY — Rocky Mountain Power announced Tuesday it is launching an energy initiative that includes helping to put 20,000 electric cars on Utah highways and crafting the state's first "zero" emissions community that taps into solar power and energy-efficient buildings.
The announcement was made at the state's first Utah Air & Energy Symposium by Rocky Mountain Power's CEO and President Cindy Crane, who said the utility company also wants to accelerate its debt obligations on coal-fired power plants operating in the state so it has more flexibility in a changing regulatory environment.
That flexibility may mean having a greater amount of money on hand to install technology to reduce emissions or the freedom to one day walk away from an "asset" that has become too burdensome to operate.
As the top electric utility provider in Utah, Rocky Mountain Power also wants to beef up the network of available charging stations for electric vehicles, especially concentrating on "rapid recharging" infrastructure ideal for large fleets or delivery drivers in a stop-and-go mode along the Wasatch Front.
Crane added that on "bad air" days during temperature inversions, the utility company will idle its 353-megawatt Gadsby power plant in Salt Lake City.
As part of the economic component of its 10-year initiative called the Utah Sustainable Transportation and Energy Plan, Crane said the company will embark on a pilot program to offer energy rate incentives to attract new businesses and reward existing commercial customers.
"We can improve air quality and comply with federal, state and environmental regulations while we are continuing to keep our economy strong with low energy prices and reliable service," Crane said. "(Utah Sustainable Transportation and Energy Plan) takes a step forward in providing cleaner air, a healthy economy and a sustainable energy policy."
Crane's announcement came during a forum addressing multiple topics on the air pollution front and in particular the way federal regulations are having or expected to have an impact.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, echoing what environmental scientists at the Utah Division of Air Quality have insisted, pointed out that the single most effective and immediate way to attack Wasatch Front air pollution is through the tailpipe.
On that note, he said Tesoro refinery has agreed to invest millions in ensuring the cleaner Tier 3 fuel is mixed at its Salt Lake City facility and available to Utah residents.
Cars contribute 48 percent of the Salt Lake Valley's wintertime fine particulate pollution that gets trapped by temperature inversions. But with more emphasis on transit-oriented developments, investments in light rail and other transit, officials said building more energy-efficient buildings will be the next challenge in the years to come.
"Any strategy to reduce air pollution has to focus on energy-efficient buildings," said Alan Matheson, executive director of the Utah Department of Environmental Quality.
Zions Bank President and CEO Scott Anderson said even though the state's population has doubled in the past 20 to 25 years, the volume of emissions have been reduced by half.
He said he anticipates more of those reductions to come in the future as technology and innovation drive changes on where people live and how they get around.
The forum addressed new federal regulations that are creating challenges for states across the country, such as a tightened ozone standard and the Clean Power Plan, which is the target of legal action brought by two dozen states, including Utah.
Even as Utah challenges the rule, the state Department of Environmental Quality is crafting a compliance plan in advance of a September 2016 deadline, and Rocky Mountain Power's parent company, PacifiCorp, is designing ways to meet the rule in Utah and other states where it operates.
The utility company's 10-year initiative brought objections from local groups like HEAL Utah, which said its desire to create one rate to cover infrastructure costs for residential customers will deter investments in energy efficiency or alternative energy resources like solar.
"Once you create a base charge for infrastructure that everyone must pay, then saving more energy doesn't save nearly as much money," said Matt Pacenza, executive director of HEAL Utah.
Company spokesman Dave Eskelsen said current rate structures have not been updated in decades, and with the advent of renewables, the company has to find a way to cover its fixed costs of power transmission.
"The fixed-cost issue is a real problem and must be resolved," he said. "With self-generation, they are reducing the kilowatt hours they are using, but they are also reducing their contribution to keep up the facilities to provide electricity."
Tuesday's symposium was hosted by the Governor's Office of Energy Development, with participation by groups Utah Clean Air Partnership, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, Zions Bank, Tesoro and Rocky Mountain Power.