The recent Western Governors Association meeting in Park City offered a stark reminder of a sad fact: When it comes to energy policy, Utah is stuck in the 19th century, while our neighbors build tomorrow's clean energy economy.
Gov. Gary Herbert has made developing Utah's energy resources a top priority. In 2011, when he announced his 10-year energy plan, he claimed that his administration would choose a so-called "all of the above" approach to energy policy, supporting everything from fossil fuels to renewable energy. He even said Utah would be "at the very forefront of the nation and oftentimes the world in developing alternative and renewable energy technologies."
Bold words from the governor of a state where less than 3 percent of the power we produce comes from wind, solar and geothermal sources one of the lowest figures in the nation. Utah's paltry green energy production is much lower than nearly all of our Western neighbors. Only Arizona (2 percent) produces a smaller share. Idaho gets 14 percent; Montana gets 9.
The state's largest driver of energy decisions is arguably Rocky Mountain Power, the utility most Utahns rely on for electricity. And it's distressing that while Rocky Mountain continues to shun renewables, the governor who says he embraces clean energy sits silent.
For example, in recently-released documents, Rocky Mountain revealed that it's not planning to add any more significant renewable resources to its coal power-heavy energy mix until at least 2024. No reaction from the Herbert administration.
In addition, the utility is trying to cut the rates it pays to third-party renewable-energy developers, entrepreneurs looking to develop resources like small-scale wind farms. Again, no reaction.
The Western Governors' meeting sheds some light on Herbert's real priorities. In a WGA report, each governor offers an essay on specific energy plans for their states.
Remember Arizona? It lags on renewables, but clean energy advocates must be heartened to see that Gov. Jan Brewer, a conservative Republican, chose to write her essay on "Leading the Way on Solar Energy," detailing the incentives and programs Arizona has put in place to catch up to other states. And it's working, according to Brewer: "Arizona's solar installations grew by 250 percent in just 2010 alone," she notes.
Herbert's essay, on the other hand, focuses on tar sands and oil shale. It's a blustery essay, filled with optimism about extracting those resources from Utah's wilderness. Allow me to paraphrase: Sure, right now tar sands and oil shale don't make a lick of economic sense, but someday, surely, they will.
What about water use? Since Utah is the second-driest state, with a population slated to double, and climate change is robbing us of our precious snow maybe this would cause the governor to reconsider whether costly and water-intensive energy projects make the most sense. No worries, his essay imparts: While "three barrels of water will be needed for every barrel of oil produced," that's not all that much, since "it takes eight barrels of water to produce a two-liter bottle of cola."
That last part isn't satire. It's a direct quote from our governor on page 85 of the "Energy Perspectives" report put out by the Western Governor's Association. You can look it up.
Utah's outdated energy policy is out of touch not just in the West, but in all of America. The trends of the past decade are crystal clear: Nationally, the share of electricity that comes from coal has been dropping sharply, from about 60 percent to 40 percent. And renewables are by far the fastest-growing segment, having doubled in just the past five years.
But not in Utah, which aggressively defends its embrace of coal and never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity to go green.
Utah could lead or at least join the transition away from fossil fuels to clean renewables. Unfortunately, because of our governor's 19th century views on energy, "all of the above" is just code for "more of the same."
Christopher Thomas is executive director of HEAL Utah, which supports a nuclear-free and environmentally healthy state.