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Net-zero housing, an electrical grid that adapts to supply and demand, and incentive programs that offer free fuel for electric cars may sound like the stuff of science fiction but Rocky Mountain Power believes it is time for Utah to stride into the future.
The electric company offered the first glimpse of its Sustainable Transportation and Energy Plan at the Governor's Air and Energy Symposium on Tuesday. Company officials said the plan, which includes a call for the creation of a prototype net-zero community, is aimed at answering customer's calls for a future with fewer emissions, cleaner energy and economic vitality.
STEP takes aim at not only the company's own emissions it calls for company-backed clean coal research and the development of additional clean energy resources but also other local industry leaders like Tesoro and Kennecott, and will encourage them to voluntarily suspend operations during inversions.
But for RMP to enact its planned incentive programs, company spokesman Paul Murphy said, the utility needs state lawmakers to give it more flexibility, and is seeking two policies the company believes are long overdue in Utah: an economic development tariff, and rate decoupling.
The tariff, Murphy said, would extend to Rocky Mountain Power a "carrot" that's available in other states the ability to negotiate lower energy rates for large companies that promise to create jobs.
"State law doesn't allow this," he said. "Businesses have moved here from California because of Utah's low energy rates. But we don't have that extra carrot that other states are able to offer."
And rate decoupling, Murphy said, would give Rocky Mountain Power more financial freedom to accommodate customers who hope to take advantage of net metering.
The utility would like to split customer's bills into two parts a base charge to cover access to the power grid, and a separate usage charge for electricity generation.
As things stand, Murphy said, the utility is required to offer one rate for electrical use that includes both the cost of generating power and the cost of maintaining the grid. That structure doesn't take into account today's evolving energy technologies, which allow some customers to generate their own electricity at the expense of neighbors who do not need an updated electrical grid capable of supporting two-way flow.
"This is something that we think has needed to be addressed for a long time," Murphy said. "We wouldn't have needed the debate over net metering had we separated the costs."
Matt Pacenza, director of environmental advocacy group HEAL Utah, disagreed. "It's not unreasonable in any way for people who use a service more to pay more for the infrastructure," he said. "The best parallel is highways. We don't charge all drivers a base infrastructure charge, regardless of how much they drive. We fund highways (primarily) through gas taxes. The more you drive, the more you pay. And vice-versa."
HEAL wasn't the only environmental group to express early doubt about STEP. "Whether it's fighting to keep dirty coal plants running or attacking rooftop solar and energy choice, RMP has a long history of undermining the very goals they announced today," said Bill Corcoran, Western regional director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, in a statement. "Today's announcement, for example, includes yet another proposal from RMP that would penalize customers who conserve energy and want the flexibility to make their own energy choices."
Murphy said he didn't believe decoupling would result in a significant increase in residential electrical bills. He said the company's goal would be to set split rates that would keep overall electrical costs the same for most customers.
RMP is looking at a base charge of $20 per customer, Murphy said, and the per-unit cost of electricity would likely be reduced.
And decoupling would come with the benefit of allowing customers to choose how they would like to purchase power, Murphy said.
Company officials also see potential for tie-ins with an independent initiative: the utility's new subscriber solar program, which the state Public Service Commission approved last week.
Subscriber solar will allow customers who are unable to invest in their own rooftop solar to purchase solar power from a yet-to-be-built commercial solar power plant that will be owned and operated by a third party. Those who sign up for the program will buy "blocks" of solar power from Rocky Mountain Power, and the utility will in turn use the collected fees to buy power from the third-party solar generator.
Rocky Mountain Power is negotiating with private contractors who wish to operate the solar plant, Murphy said, and expects to have its subscriber solar program live by the end of 2016. The company plans to start small with an initial subscriber solar capacity of 20 megawatts. The utility already has about 1,200 megawatts of solar power scheduled to come online next year, and that number is expected to grow as solar energy becomes more viable.
In the near future, customers who choose to buy electric cars, which the company believes have great potential for reducing emissions on the Wasatch Front, might be reimbursed with free solar-power blocks enough to fuel said car for a year.
Rocky Mountain Power would like to see these plans begin to take shape as early as next year, but most of the proposal remains in the discussion and planning stages.
Because so much of the plan relies on state lawmakers' decision to change energy policy, Murphy said, the company will have to wait and see what gets approved before deciding how to implement the details of STEP.
RMP's CEO, Cindy Crane, announced STEP at the Utah Air and Energy Symposium, touted as a first-of-its kind event and sponsored by Zions Bank, Tesoro and Rocky Mountain Power. It focused on four areas of interest: the Clean Power Plan, the EPA's new standards for ozone, emissions from transportation and the energy efficiency of homes and businesses.
Twitter: @EmaPen At a glance: The Utah Sustainable Transportation and Energy Plan
• Private industry voluntarily finds ways to reduce or eliminate emissions
• Rocky Mountain Power offers incentives to help customers purchase electric cars
• Rocky Mountain Power participates in the development of a 150-home, net-zero pilot community in Utah that will help explore the practical application of emerging energy technologies
• Fund research of new technologies that would reduce emissions from coal-fired and other pre-existing power plants.
• Pay down investments in coal-fired power plants to protect customers from rate volatility
• Increase utilities' financial viability by decoupling residential power bills
• Develop an "energy tariff" that would enable Rocky Mountain Power to negotiate lower power rates for large incoming businesses
• Reduce the cost of new line extensions to promote economic growth