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Does Rocky Mountain Power want to encourage clean energy in Utah? It's a legitimate question, given the company's recent history of regulatory requests.

In addition to battling with rooftop-solar customers over an added fee, RMP also is requesting to reduce the length of contracts it signs with alternative-energy companies. Under a federal law passed in the 1970s, public utilities are required to buy power from alternative-energy producers such as wind and solar farms. Under state law, these contracts must run 20 years to let the energy producers recover their investment costs.

RMP has asked the Utah Public Service Commission to shorten those contracts to three years. The company says it is acting on behalf of its customers, who will be forced to pay more for this alternative energy than they would for RMP's existing energy sources, mainly coal.

Rocky Mountain Power will tell you it is still very much interested in alternative energy, and they spend millions of dollars on various green initiatives, although much of that investment comes from a special fee paid by customers, not stockholders. RMP officials also will tell you that regulation is stacked against them in terms of developing their own alternative sources. There are more tax breaks available to the companies developing solar and wind than would be available to RMP to develop their own.

The bottom line is that RMP doesn't want to buy any more green energy than it already has, and it says if it is forced to, it will charge customers more for it. It's a position that is mostly supported by the state Division of Public Utilities, which advises the PSC, but it is not supported by another state agency, the Committee of Consumer Services, which represents consumers. That committee shares concerns about cost to ratepayers, but it believes that properly pricing the alternative power is better than simply shortening the contracts, which it believes would discourage alternative-energy development as clean-energy advocates fear.

The hard part for consumers is that coal is cheap in Utah. Domestic demand is dropping, meaning that supply rises and prices drop. If we're really only interested in the lowest priced energy, we could keep shoveling coal for decades at least.

And that gets back to whether the price of coal reflects its true cost, including the environmental damage that burning coal causes. This is where the carbon-fee advocates make their case. If such a fee were enacted, it would dramatically alter the economic arguments in this case and many others.

Does RMP want to encourage clean energy in Utah? That isn't the question for the PSC. The question is what Utahns want, and what Utahns want is affordable energy, to be sure, but they also don't want to be the last ones still burning coal. If shortening the contracts stifles clean energy development, Utah will be slowing its own progress.