They’ve spent 2 decades influencing clean energy policy. Here’s where they’re headed next
Utah Clean Energy is planning on moving to a ‘net-zero’ building down town as they grow out of their current home
Between a fine crafts store and the Cucina restaurant in the Avenues of Salt Lake City sits a two-story house occupied by the employees of Utah Clean Energy. It’s a hot day in early June. Brandy Smith, the communications director for the nonprofit, comes out to greet me and invites me in.
No one’s in except for Smith and Logan Mitchell, the climate scientist and energy analyst. The pandemic created more opportunities to work from home, and Utah Clean Energy was quick to adapt.
Reader, it seems they’ve outgrown their current home — piles of boxes, a large conference table and tiny cubicles to fit 14 employees take up most of the space — and their work has no end in sight. Fighting climate change is a hard battle, after all.
“It feels like I’ve been drinking from a fire hose for the last month,” says Mitchell, laughing, when I ask him what work has been like. He is a recent hire, leaving his job as an atmospheric sciences professor at the University of Utah.
“It’s really easy to feel like nothing is happening,” he says, adding that it isn’t entirely true. There is progress being made and Utah Clean Energy is a key player when it comes to the decisions made in the state.
Over the course of two decades, this small-but-mighty team has influenced the Utah Legislature on solar panels, building codes, electric vehicles and their chargers, coal mining and more, while also pushing for education. And Sarah Wright is the one leading these troops to “net zero.”
“The momentum continues to kind of build,” says Smith. The group is gearing up to move to its new downtown location — the “Climate Innovation Center.”
Of course, they started small.
Taking much-needed initiative
In the early 2000s, California went through an energy crisis that impacted the entire West. PG&E went bankrupt.
Then-Gov. Gray Davis’ administration was partly to blame but so was Enron, an energy company that created a shortage by taking power plants offline. Prices went up by 800% or more.
“The solution at that time, everyone was saying was, ‘Well, we just need to build more coal plants and build more transmission and that’s all we have to do.’ But coming from a science background, I understood climate change,” said Wright, the executive director of Utah Clean Energy, in a Zoom interview from her home.
“I’m not an economist, but once you invest in an asset, that’s the standard,” she said.
Instead of inviting more dirty energy factories in, she decided to use her background as a geologist and environmental consultant to use and began volunteering during the energy crisis.
Wright started her own nonprofit in 2002.
Plenty of research and expertise suggested that climate change was a real problem, desperately waiting to be addressed, but leaders — including lawmakers and governors — weren’t ready to receive those ideas yet. That is the work Utah Clean Energy sought to do.
The first hire was Kevin Emerson, whose debut campaign was powering the University of Utah with wind energy.
Students voted to pay an additional $1 per semester to cover the school’s cost of purchasing renewable energy credits, saving 6.4 million gallons of water per year, Emerson told the Daily Utah Chronicle in 2004.
He now leads the team in building efficiency and decarbonization-related efforts, but he got his start reaching out to businesses and educating them about clean sources of power.
“In the early 2000s, the renewable energy industry didn’t exist in Utah. I don’t think there was a single wind turbine generating electricity in Utah,” says Emerson. “There were probably a few, but not a meaningful number of rooftop solar programs.”
This was around the time Utah Clean Energy was asked to serve on former Gov. Jon Huntsman’s “Blue Ribbon Advisory Council on Climate Change,” the first climate mitigation plan for the state, which created 70 actionable steps to reduce emissions.
“There’s an issue here and we have to talk about it,” Huntsman said at the launch in 2006. “There is a sense of humanity in the air we breathe and the land we share.”
Working with lawmakers is tough. The group took inspiration from Nevada’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, which was introduced in 1997 and requires a percentage of electricity sold to be renewable energy. It reduced carbon emissions, created jobs and diversified a very fossil-fuel-heavy portfolio, and Utah needed this, says Wright.
“I thought it would be easy,” she admits. “We ended up getting completely shut down in the legislature.”
After a few years of trying, the group found success when the “Energy Resource and Carbon Emission Reduction Initiative” passed under Huntsman. But it had some loopholes, as Katharine Biele wrote for City Weekly in 2008.
Rocky Mountain Power, which controls much of the state’s energy resources, was supposed to get 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025, but is allowed to include past renewables to get to the goal. If they miss the mark? No penalties.
“So, basically, we had almost met the standard when we passed it,” says Wright.
Utah Clean Energy’s leader quickly learned that “perseverance pays off” in their line of work. Giving up isn’t an option, even when it gets frustrating.
Maybe these characteristics have given them an honorable reputation. Former state Sen. Patrice Arent, who founded the bipartisan Clean Air Caucus, labeled the group as “some of the best environmental advocates” in Utah while calling Wright a “visionary leader.”
Another initiative they diverted their focus to in the early 2000s was solar energy.
There were only 76 rooftop solar installations in Utah in 2006, Amy Joi O’Donoghue reported for the Deseret News. Since then, installations have risen in popularity and, as of March last year, 50,000 homes and businesses are solar-powered after the nonprofit “streamlined interconnection and improved net-metering,” a billing system that credits solar energy system users for the energy they add to the grid, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.
The non-profit continued creating factsheets about renewables, presenting to the legislature and traveling around the state to educate rural governments about their energy options.
One lawmaker to see the group in action was state Rep. Joel Briscoe, D-Salt Lake City, who appreciates the group’s willingness to educate policymakers and its ability to stay focused on big goals.
“They understand the importance of having friends on both sides, working with legislators across the political spectrum,” Briscoe says.
Walkin’ the talk
Electric vehicles are a big part of the clean and green future, which is why the technology’s adoption is crucial for the group.
“The reason is, electric vehicles have no tailpipe emissions, they’re an incredible air quality solution, not to mention a climate change solution,” explained Smith during a Zoom call in May.
In 2016, Utah Clean Energy led the work on “tax credits, EV charging infrastructure, and an EV community purchase program,” making the state an early adopter that led the nation.
As the group celebrates 20 years of making a difference, it is also ready to move to a bigger, better space in downtown Salt Lake City as they continue to advocate for available renewables that can power ultra-energy-efficient homes, and electrify transportation systems.
Officially named the “Climate Innovation Center,” the building will not only house the Utah Clean Energy staffers but also serve as a “laboratory” for climate solutions, the group said in a press release.
“It’s going to be a community space,” says Smith, adding that they hope to invite stakeholders and partners in their work to create a cleaner future.
Although construction is still underway, their new home is set to feature state-of-the-art, net-zero design, making it one of the city’s most energy efficient buildings, the perfect place to work on their mission to create a future.
The building was previously a hair salon, constructed in the 1950s.
“It hasn’t been renovated,” she says. “So, it needs and deserves the TLC that we’re gonna give it.”
Note: Celebrate two decades’ worth of influence on energy policy with Utah Clean Energy on Sept. 8. Buy your tickets here.