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Opinion: Utah lawmakers should focus on boosting clean energy

Leaders could accomplish this by incentivizing solar, wind, existing geothermal energies, building electrification, electric transportation and responsible mining for battery elements lithium and cobalt. 

Solar power entrepreneur Tony Grimshaw stands near the Utah Municipal Power Agency’s installation he helped build.
Solar power entrepreneur Tony Grimshaw stands near the Utah Municipal Power Agency’s installation he helped build.
Tony Grimshaw, Olson Electric Co.

Tony Grimshaw smiles as he shows off the Utah Municipal Power Agency’s new community solar installation, which he helped build. But that was his old job. Only weeks ago, he founded a brand new solar company. He, his business partner, and two employees are working on quality control for solar panels on a corporate building in Salt Lake City.

The installation will be the largest rooftop array in Utah and the eighth largest in the nation.

But Grimshaw plans to move beyond quality control, dreaming of building solar installations many times bigger than the one in Spanish Fork. If early interest in Grimshaw’s company is any indication, he could be hiring soon.

His company’s expansion would benefit more than just himself and his family. Reports from local and international agencies say a quick transition to clean energy is necessary for citizen and environmental health, as well as for meeting the nation’s Paris Agreement obligations.

Solar energy is now the cheapest form of electricity ever available to humankind. It’s 70% cheaper than coal and 45% cheaper than gas and avoids pollution that harms our health and warms our environment. But while consumer economics for clean energy are solid, markets alone are unlikely to produce enough changes in the necessary timeframe.

Notwithstanding these facts, federal and state legislatures continue to subsidize the fossil fuel industry, investing billions to prop up fading, expensive industries that damage our health and air. This despite the fact that jobs in that industry are declining because of decreased demand as well as automation, which alone could reduce jobs by another 20% over the coming decade.

The clean energy jobs that could replace them pay much more than the median wage and offer career paths for blue- and white-collar workers with various levels of education.

With ample sunlight, windy canyons and geothermal potential, Utah is uniquely poised to benefit from a renewable revolution with the right incentives in place. In 2009, a state government task force estimated Utah’s renewable energy potential at 837 gigawatts from solar, wind and traditional geothermal installations. Even one gigawatt developed from each of these sources would be enough to light whole cities full of homes.

In the last few years, Utah’s solar production has indeed far exceeded one gigawatt, but wind and geothermal production still lag. If more of this energy potential were developed, Utah workers and the economy would benefit.

Utah should also get behind creative solutions that repurpose obsolete infrastructure and embrace innovation. Intermountain Power Authority’s plan to convert the state’s largest coal plant to gas/hydrogen is one example of job preservation during the energy transition, and even cleaner plant conversions are emerging. Comparably “clean” oil and gas emission innovations for transportation and energy production have not delivered and won’t be scalable in time to meet Paris Agreement commitments. However, other technologies show much more promise.

Utah-based research is poised to revolutionize energy in the West and around the world. University of Utah’s Forge project anticipates being able to transform geothermal energy production, creating copious electricity with a small land footprint and almost no waste. Endorsed by the Utah Legislature and Sen. Mitt Romney, the ASPIRE program at Utah State University is making remarkable progress in developing technology that would let electric vehicles charge while in motion. Electric semi trucks already enjoy a lower lifetime cost than their diesel counterparts — which account for 23% of transportation pollution nationally — and ASPIRE’s innovations could make the electric version even more appealing.

While waiting for new technologies to develop, Utah’s federal and state leaders should speed energy transition and boost the economy by focusing policies and resources on existing clean industries. Leaders could accomplish this by incentivizing solar, wind, existing geothermal energies, building electrification, electric transportation and responsible mining for battery elements lithium and cobalt.

This would benefit employees, especially those who currently work in the fossil fuel industry, and consumers, who would get cleaner air and a resilient energy portfolio — avoiding costly fluctuations in oil, gas and coal prices, like those in the market today.

Solar entrepreneur Tony Grimshaw has his eye on the horizon. The clean energy installations he hopes to build will directly benefit working families, human health, and our local economy. Utah’s local, state, and federal policymakers would do well to look to the future, too.

Melarie Wheat is a Utah Chapter co-lead of Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Christi Leman is an MWEG environment and sustainability specialist.