If you remember those front-of-the-store toy claw machines that had all sorts of tantalizing choices, Utah is much like that when it comes to its diverse energy offerings, and the state continues to look to add more options in the future.

Yet like that claw machine, different sectors of the public have their eye on a particular “prize” that is most appealing to them.

Maybe it’s solar. Or it could be wind. Some are most comfortable with the traditional nature of coal and the increasing abundance of natural gas, which overall remains the dominant option for heating homes, institutions, businesses and industry.

A report released by the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at the University of Utah looks at Utah’s energy sector in 2023 and where it is headed this year. It was authored by Michael D. Vanden Berg, energy and mineral program manager for the Utah Geological Survey, and released earlier this month.

While Utah coal production dropped to its lowest level in over 45 years in 2023 — stemming from the closure of two mines — the analysis says it may increase slightly this year.

“Utah coal deliveries to the foreign export market have experienced a modest jump in recent years and potential remains for access to a strong overseas market that could potentially replace falling demand,” Vanden Berg noted.

In contrast, Utah’s crude oil production increased by 22% in 2023, the highest annual production on record.

High natural gas prices, coupled with projected record high demand, led to production increases. Most natural gas in Utah, the report noted, is used for residential purposes (28%) or electricity generation (31%) followed by commercial at 17% and industrial at 12%.

New utility-scale facilities elevated solar to 12% of Utah’s overall electricity generation. Since 2013, solar electrical generation has jumped from 6 megawatts to 379 megawatts in 2022.

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With the ongoing and fast-moving transition in the energy sector — some critics say Utah is not moving fast enough — Vanden Berg takes a look at the new “toys” on the horizon that could end up in the claw machine.

In particular, the shiny new objects are part of an intensified emphasis on research and projects in the arena of carbon-neutral energy sources. Vanden Berg points to:

  • Generation of carbon-neutral hydrogen coupled with underground storage, underground compressed air, pumped hydroelectric facilities and traditional utility-scale battery storage.
  • Enhanced geothermal and closed-looped systems and tapping into traditional geothermal resources.
  • Production of carbon-neutral hydrogen for electricity generation and vehicle fuel.
  • Next generation nuclear energy facilities.

Utah is already in the business of new toy production, with the FORGE geothermal project in central Utah, its commitment by political leaders and PacifiCorp to pursue and ultimately rely on next generation nuclear reactors and using nuclear power “microgrids” in both military and industrial applications.

A solar farm in Clawson, Emery County, is pictured on Wednesday, May 11, 2022. Since 2013, solar electrical generation has jumped from 6 megawatts to 379 megawatts in 2022. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
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Also, just this week, the U.S. Department of Energy announced Utah would share in millions in the commercial development of hydrogen fuel, with two companies getting a piece of $750 million pie.

Chemtronergy in Salt Lake City and OxEon Energy were the recipients. Chemtronenergy received $2.6 million for design and validation in the arena of hydrogen energy development.

On Friday, OxEon Energy detailed its $36 million funding in the arena of development of hydrogen as a fuel source and its first gigawatt facility.

The company described the funding as a “game-changing development” to further achieve its goals and demonstrate additional breakthroughs.

In its release, the company said it had already showcased its technology aboard the Mars Perseverance Rover within NASA’s Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) and has since successfully scaled its advancements for earthbound applications. The OxEon Energy Company used its technology to produce oxygen on Mars and was named among the best inventions in 2023 by Time Magazine.

Overall, Utah’s energy production has put the state in the space of importing some of its energy, while it historically has been a net energy exporter, the report said.

This is expected to shift in the near future, however, with energy production on the increase.