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Nation's renewable energy consumption highest since the 1930s

Is Utah doing enough? Opinions vary

SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. consumers are increasingly turning to solar, wind and biomass for their energy needs, driving domestic renewable energy consumption to its highest peak since the 1930s.

A recent analysis by the U.S. Energy Information Administration — an independent research service of the U.S. Department of Energy — found that renewables' share of the nation's energy consumption hit 9.8 percent in 2014.

That percentage, the analysis said, returns the country to its 1930 levels of renewable energy consumption, when wood was a larger contributor to domestic energy supplies.

Year to year growth, on average, was 5 percent from 2001-2014 for renewable energy consumption, due in large part to the growing use of wind, solar and biofuels, according to the analysis.

As an example:

• Wind energy grew by 70 trillion British thermal units in 2001 to 1,700 trillion Btu in 2014.

• In the same period, solar energy grew from 64 trillion Btu to 427 trillion Btu and the use of biomass for the production of biofuels grew from 253 trillion Btu to 2,068 trillion Btu.

(A Btu is the amount of heat required to increase the temperature of a pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit).

While hydroelectric power remained the nation's largest source of renewable energy in 2014, wood held onto its No. 2 spot, with the analysis pointing to the high demand for wood pellets contributing to its recent growth.

The administration said Americans are increasingly turning to wood to heat their homes and the transportation sector is pushing a larger appetite for biofuels, including ethanol and biodiesel.

In 2014, the industrial sector used 24 percent of the nation's renewable energy, with nearly all of that coming from biomass — which includes wood, waste and biofuels used in the manufacturing process and the production of heat and power.

Utah renewables

None of these energy dynamics are lost on Utah's landscape of power production, with multiple renewable projects slated to come online and research that is ongoing to diversify the state's energy portfolio.

The Utah Biomass Resources Group estimates there are 15 million tons of woody biomass available in the state each year, with combustion techniques that produce very little smoke or vapor.

Organized in 2010 and drawing together multiple state agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and Utah State University Extension Service, the group is looking to tap into Utah's biomass resources for energy, and at the same time boost forest health and improve watersheds.

The group says a total of 45 million tons of "green energy" could be utilized in the state over the next five years. Demonstration projects on the economics of utilizing woody biomass have drawn substantial interest and a unique partnership is being broached to convert the material to energy, according to co-chairman Darren McAvoy.

Utah is also poised to see billions in new solar investments over the next 18 months, with nearly 900 megawatts of new solar slated to be turned on, said Jeffrey Barrett, deputy director of the Governor's Office of Energy Development.

"Southern Utah is abuzz with solar contracts," he said.

And in late June, Sustainable Power Group announced its purchase of a 62.1-megawatt wind farm in San Juan County that is expecting to begin energy production this year, inking a 20-year contract with PacifiCorp to purchase the power.

The Sierra Club's national director, Michael Brune, said Utah state officials may be able to point to future projects coming online, but the reality is "very little" is happening in the state when it comes to renewable energy.

"Iowa will soon get 40 percent of its electricity from renewables and Colorado will soon be at 30 percent," he said. "Nevada will soon be the leader with advanced energy batteries. All of these things are happening, but very little of it is happening in Utah. Instead you see this rush to extract fossil fuels from a world-class resource. It is tragic."

Brune, in Moab a few weeks ago of an environmental advocacy road trip, bemoaned the oil and gas development that is occurring near Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park.

Standards and goals

While acknowledging that development is happening via leases owned by the federal government — and not within the state's control — Brune said the state could do more to require investments in renewable energy, including the adoption of a renewable energy standard that is more than just a wish.

Brune said the majority of Utah's neighboring states have renewable portfolio standards that require a percentage of their energy be derived from alternative sources such as wind or solar, while Utah's remains just a "goal."

"It would accelerate clean energy and it would create an enormous amount of jobs in the state," he said. "It would reduce the amount of air and water pollution. It would be a boon for the state of Utah."

Local advocates Utah Clean Energy also point out that the state's goal is flawed because it lacks any interim goals or targets to reach its stated desire to get to 20 percent by 2025.

Under Utah's provisions, utility companies are only required to use renewable energy if it is cost effective, according to the group.

Barrett said the critics will always be right: There's more to be done on the renewable energy front.

"Everyone can always do more to incentivize, more to encourage the development of renewable energy," he said. "There's always more that you can do. The growth in Utah in renewable energy may not have kept pace with the rest of the country in terms of what is being consumed."

But Barrett argues that Utah — with its 82 percent energy production arising from coal — is poised to see nearly 15 percent of its capacity come from renewables by 2016.

"If all of the resources are actively generating at their full capacity post 2016, then non-hydro renewable energy will account for about 15 percent of that total capacity," he said.

Barrett said by waiting and letting the cost of solar come down so it has become a more economically attainable option, Utah consumers will be able to get renewable energy at about the same cost as natural gas, rather than the high prices California consumers are paying.

"You can rail against Utah's policy, but the fact is Utah gets to have its cake and eat it, too," he said. "They get it at roughly half the cost of neighboring states that took the more progressive action of creating a mandate."

Barrett said he believes that factor speaks to the attractiveness of letting the "market" dictate what happens with renewable energy.

"We are behind some states and in a couple of years we will be ahead of some states in terms of portfolio numbers," he said. "What matters is that we are getting the renewable at a really good price for ratepayers."

Brune and other advocates contend that Utah is missing out on a bounty of economic development activity with its insistence on staying with a mere goal — which does not reflect what the majority of states have done. The District of Columbia, three territories and 29 states all have standards, not goals.

"If Iowa can invest in clean energy, why can't Utah?"

But Barret said Brune's blanket accusation doesn't reflect the reality of what is happening.

Clean energy jobs

"We are investing to the tune of millions of dollars a year depending on the year through tax incentives, both refundable and nonrefundable," he said. For every megawatt hour of renewable energy generated in this state, we pay a production tax credit. If that is not investment, I don't know what is."

A recent report issued by an affiliate of another prominent national environmental organization, too, lists Utah among the top 10 states in the country for clean energy job creation announcements and related transportation for the first three months of 2015.

The Wednesday compilation was researched and produced by E2, or Environmental Entrepreneurs, which is affiliated with the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In its state by state analysis, the report pointed to the 300 jobs that are slated to come online in Utah with a large-scale solar farm planned for Iron County. Those jobs are among the nearly 10,000 clean energy and clean transportation jobs announced during early 2015.

Barrett said that type of concession by an environmental group bolsters his contention that Utah is making strides in the renewable energy arena.

"We are a proactive partner for companies looking to develop these resources. We do everything we can to encourage this activity, short of mandating a certain resource mix to our utility companies, because we don't think that is appropriate."

Email: amyjoi@deseretnews.com

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