Flipping the switch

Why do Western states lag behind when it comes to renewable energy?

When we talk about energy systems, there’s inevitably many mentions of “the grid.” It’s a simple enough phrase, evocative of a mesh of wires, or an area crisscrossed by city streets — both of which seem like fitting images for many people using energy from a shared source. People toss it out so casually and everyone nods along like we know what it means, sort of like “the cloud.” (I picture all my undeleted emails floating above me, packed tightly together in a dark mass, my devices repeatedly telling me I need to buy more aerial real estate.) 

Really, though, there is no singular “grid,” nor could I ever find one for you on a map. “The grid” is many grids, interconnected systems of electrical production, transmission and delivery. Sometimes, people seem to be referring to the hardware exclusively: physical infrastructure like power plants, transmission lines and the breakers in your basement. But other times it sounds like they’re talking about all of it — the regulators, the private and public utilities, the market where excess power is bought and sold, the teams of people and massive computers whose job it is to keep the whole vast, dispersed, sprawling operation running.

“The grid,” simple as the name is, is one of the most complex systems humans have ever made. And except for during blackouts, the massive apparatus that allows us to have light at a twitch of our fingers is largely taken for granted.

Today, we are in the midst of overhauling the grid, with legislation and private initiatives that are replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy like wind and solar. The idea of transitioning to renewable energy has been around for years. But, in practice, it’s turning out to be a challenge that shares many qualities with the grid itself: regionally interconnected and locally specific; at the same time both rigidly logical and bafflingly political; and subject to regulations from multiple jurisdictions while power over it remains both dispersed and monopolized.

Studio Muti for the Deseret News

But change is possible, and strides have already been made. There have been commitments from private companies and a relatively recent slew of legislative goals that promise “net-zero” and “100 percent renewable energy use.” In April 2022, the U.S. hit a record high for renewable generation — 28 percent of the energy produced that month was by wind, solar and hydro. And while that’s notable progress on a national scale, those numbers don’t tell the whole story of what’s going on at a regional level. Specifically, in the mountains of the American West.

The West, as we know it, is increasingly being heralded as ground zero for climate change in America. It’s been recognized as far back as 2009, when a report on U.S. climate change impacts prepared by the U.S. Global Change Research Program declared unequivocally that, “human-induced climate change appears to be well underway in the Southwest.” That report also predicted the Intermountain West as one of the hardest-hit regions in the United States as climate change accelerates. From the Colorado River Basin to the Great Salt Lake, we’re witnessing those premonitions now.  

Transitioning to renewable energy is turning out to be a challenge that shares many qualities with the grid: both rigidly logical and bafflingly political.

So why isn’t ground zero also acting as the cradle for renewable energy in America?

In the Intermountain West, the bulk of electricity is still produced by nonrenewable sources. Utah relies on coal for 61.8 percent of its electric generation. Wyoming tops the regional list — relying on coal for 73 percent of electric output. Over 40 percent of the energy in Montana and Colorado is also produced with coal. Nevada depends on natural gas for 62 percent of its electricity. Natural gas is considered to have significantly lower emissions than coal but is not classified as a renewable energy source. It also has the risk of leaking methane, which, according to the EPA, is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.

There are no coal plants in Idaho — in fact, the state uses hydropower for more than 50 percent of its electric needs, and Idaho Power says it will stop buying energy from coal plants in other states by 2028. Idaho is the exception, though, as the rest of the Intermountain West continues to produce and utilize the majority of its energy with fossil fuels — coal and natural gas.

Overhauling infrastructure is a tall order, no matter where you are. Our “grid” is held intact by a web of 700,000 circuit miles of electric lines strung across U.S. soil. Unless you are one of the estimated 250,000 Americans living off-grid, communities of every size are navigating the challenges created by limited budgets, regulations, politics, monopolistic utilities and physics. In the West, those difficulties are amplified by size, geography and population density. Having fewer people doesn’t make the problems any simpler — it just makes the tax base to fund solutions smaller. How dispersed the inhabitants of the Intermountain West are doesn’t make things any easier, either — it’s inefficient from the perspective of utility companies.

The West isn’t going to get any smaller, and it will be a long time, if ever, before the population density rivals the Eastern Seaboard, or even the Midwest. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t paths forward.

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A visit to two Montana power plants — one a massive old coal plant making its way off the grid, the other a pumped hydro facility being developed at a glacial pace — reveals the technical challenges of renewables and the deeply entrenched, regionally interconnected nature of some of the largest fossil fuel projects still out there. 

The historic mining town of Colstrip is home to the Colstrip Power Plant. Built in the 1970s, over the last decade the facility was one of the most polluting coal plants in the country. It’s been on course to shut down for years. Colstrip’s value has decreased by 87 percent since 2013, and two of its four units permanently shut down in 2020.

When exactly the remaining two units will stop burning coal is a topic of debate between plant’s ownership, which spans several states. Seventy percent of the electricity generated at Colstrip belongs to utilities in Oregon and Washington. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy owns only 30 percent of one unit. It’s the out-of-state owners that are driving the plant to close down, since the coastal states of Washington and Oregon have mandated an end to all coal-generated energy use by 2025 and 2030, respectively. 

But ongoing legal proceedings over when the plant will close, involving one party that has filed for bankruptcy and two new Montana laws that would make it more difficult to close the plant, keep the exact timeline hazy. As of the most recent reporting, NorthWestern still planned on getting energy from Colstrip until 2042.

Besides delays caused by messy interstate squabbles over where and how a coal plant will shut down, the two other operating coal power plants in Montana are illustrative of other fates sealed for coal facilities. One small plant, no longer profitable or appealing to buyers, will likely go offline in 2024. The other was purchased to power cryptocurrency mining. The energy-intensive practice had the facility’s furnaces running more than three times as much as they had in recent years when making and selling electricity for the grid. 

The Gordon Butte Pumped Storage Hydro facility, on the other hand, could be everything that Colstrip isn’t. A couple of hours to the northwest of Billings is Gordon Butte, the proposed site for the facility that would both store and produce about two-thirds as much power as the two decommissioned Colstrip units using a closed-loop reservoir system.

Before it’s evident why a facility like the one at Gordon Butte is such a big deal, the current state of electricity and our grid as it currently functions need to be illuminated. Because fundamentally, the biggest challenge in transitioning to renewable energy sources is that they have to be integrated into a grid designed for fossil fuels. 

Energy demand fluctuates throughout the day and year, depending on the weather and people’s activity. How much solar and wind power, and, to a lesser extent, hydropower, is available also varies by the time of day and the season, in a way that doesn’t always align with when it’s needed. For renewables to fully replace coal, a massive amount of storage will need to be added to the system so that when it’s breezy and sunny and turbines and panels are collecting more energy than people are using, the excess can be stored for when it’s dark and the wind is calm. Currently, there’s very little storage built into the grid, because fossil fuels never needed it. 

Right now, nearly all of the storage that’s been built exists in the form of water in reservoirs. With dams we can control how much water passes through into energy-generating turbines, allowing only how much is needed to be used and the rest to be held back and released when there’s demand for it. Pumped hydro storage facilities are artificial replications of this dynamic, pumping water from a lower reservoir to an upper to absorb excess energy from the grid, and releasing that water back down when it’s needed. But despite being years into the process of planning and permitting — and despite how critically the grid needs storage for renewables to truly replace fossil fuels — ground still hasn’t been broken on the Gordon Butte facility. 

One reason is that the project’s value is being decided within a system of investors, utilities, and regulators that, once again, was built around fossil fuels. It doesn’t account for the value storage brings on a grid-level scale by enabling more of the wind- and solar-generated energy to be captured and put to use. Utilities make money by charging to have electricity transported on their power lines, and power plants make money by selling the energy they generate. But where, exactly, storing energy fits into the equation is unclear (it’s sometimes folded into net metering, which arguably doesn’t capture its value on a large-scale). According to a report on pumped hydro storage by the U.S. Department of Energy, this is a common issue with developing pumped hydro storage.

At its simplest, “transitioning to renewable energy” means getting coal and fossil fuels offline and renewables like hydro, solar and wind online. But the realities of that proposition are far from simple thanks to messy, sometimes multistate plant ownerships, energy users like cryptocurrency miners prolonging the life of coal plants, and a system that isn’t equipped to store energy to smooth out the peaks and valleys of intermittent energy sources like wind and solar. 

Communities of every size across the country face the challenges of overhauling the grid. In the West, those difficulties are amplified by size, geography and population density. 

So what happens now?

The specifics vary somewhat depending on where you are, but in most states, it’s possible to set up your own renewable power generation (usually solar, since most people don’t have room for a 500-foot wind turbine) while staying on the grid through something called net metering. Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Nevada and New Mexico all have laws allowing for it in one form or another. Arizona does not, while Idaho gives utilities the choice to voluntarily offer net metering.

The idea is that once you put up the solar panels, your household energy needs will first be powered by those. During periods when the panels aren’t producing as much energy as you need, you’ll get electricity from the grid as usual. When you’re generating more power with solar than you can use, the excess will be let out into the grid to power your neighbors’ houses. A meter installed with the solar panels keeps track of how much energy you’re contributing to the grid, and the value is counted against your monthly bill so that you’re only paying the utility the “net” of the energy that you use. 

The concept and technology are straightforward enough, but as usual, the devil is in the details. Exactly how much the “consumer-generator” gets paid for the energy they contribute to the grid depends on the particular state’s net metering laws. Sometimes there will be a limit to the amount of energy you’re allowed to generate, or a cap on the percentage of your total energy use that can come from your personal solar. Some places allow for community and aggregate net metering, where multiple buildings have their net contribution counted together. 

Just as an example, let’s say you’re trying to set up solar at your house in Laramie, Wyoming. Net metering has been legal in the state since 2001, and last year withstood attempts of repeal. Rocky Mountain Power, a private utility and the largest energy provider in the state, supported repealing net metering, and other proponents of the measure said that net metering shifted costs onto those consumers without the means to afford the upfront costs of blanketing their roofs in solar panels (or who don’t own property at all).

Later research found that the benefits “outweigh the costs,” and that costs weren’t being shifted to consumers without solar panels, which is in line with research on net metering writ large. But the debate does point to a major limitation in taking individual action to reshape the grid, and why true change, especially in the Intermountain West, needs to be at the grid-level and include as many consumers as possible. 

It comes down to simple economies of scale: a mile of power line costs the same to build whether it serves one hundred people or one thousand, so a utility makes more money serving more densely populated areas, which are in short supply in much of the West. The same holds true for power plants — the initial costs of permitting, development and construction mean that the larger a facility is and the more people it serves, the quicker it’s likely to turn a profit for its owners. The more people that opt out of the grid, the less financially appealing large-scale infrastructure projects, necessary for a timely renewable transition, become to private utility companies.

From this perspective, your home energy renovation budget would be better served installing a heat pump (an incredible, energy efficient way to cool and heat buildings), weatherizing and increasing the overall energy efficiency of your home, as opposed to going “off-grid.”

Transitioning the grid is ultimately a political problem as well as a complex logistical and technical one. Despite the technological and regulatory limitations, which energy sources we research and build infrastructure for is a choice. For years, the lack of top-down, federal leadership has made changes to the grid a slow and arduous process in states with powerful historic fossil fuel interests, like Montana and Wyoming, or in those governed by political parties with an aversion to regulation, like most of the Intermountain West. The politics of renewables might not be quite what you expect, though, at least in the Intermountain West. Policies like net metering are kept alive by strong independent streaks as much as by concern over climate change. 

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The Conservative Climate Caucus in the U.S. House of Representatives, a group of Republicans who want “conservative solutions to lower emissions while enhancing economic prosperity,” was formed by Utah Congressman John Curtis in 2021. But not a single House Republican from that caucus supported the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act this summer, which is, among other things, the largest investment the U.S. has ever made in climate change adaptation and sustainable energy infrastructure. And yet, that hasn’t translated into a lack of investment. Many of the largest foreseeable investments in renewables will be in Republican congressional districts. Utah’s 2nd District is set to increase its solar capacity by two-thirds, the 13th-largest solar investment of any district in the country, in 2025. Wyoming, which has just one representative in the House thanks to its low population, will get the sixth-largest boost in wind-generating infrastructure in 2026.

The goal of the many pledges and promises mentioned above for renewable energy transition is a simple one: get to the point where each and every kilowatt in the grid comes from solar, wind or running water. Before that can happen, coal plants still clinging to life need to be put to rest by their array of owners. Storage needs to be built to smooth out the ebbs and flows of intermittent availability, and create the balance between availability and demand that could be achieved in real-time. Individuals need to be supported to do their part in a way that’s good for the collective. But there’s a lot to work with, too, since those 700,000 circuit miles of electric lines built to carry electricity fueled by coal can carry energy generated by clean sources just as well.

There’s no lack of potential sources of renewable energy in the Intermountain West. And with federal funding finally sending meaningful money to states, the economies of scale that have dogged the West for years will shift. How much and in which ways — that is to say, what exactly the grid will look like in five or 10 years — is anyone’s guess. The only sure thing is that it will be very different from the one of today, even if the light switch you’re turning on isn’t.  

This story appears in the November issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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