Twenty-three Utah cities and counties have resolved to adopt 100 percent net-renewable electricity (from solar, wind, geothermal, hydro-electric, and demand management) in their communities by 2030 through the Community Renewable Energy Act of 2019. This represents about 37 percent of Utah’s electricity load.
How did a conservative, coal-based state achieve such a commitment? We recently published a study in the journal Sustainability (access is currently free) exploring how it all began with Salt Lake City, Park City, and Moab, the first Utah cities to enact 100 percent net-renewable electricity resolutions. Through interviews of the key players involved and secondary sources, our research uncovered the initial key obstacles facing the cities’ renewable electricity goals and the strategies they have initiated to tackle them.
The biggest hurdle was convincing Rocky Mountain Power, their existing fossil-fuel dependent utility monopoly, to develop and provide the communities sufficient clean, renewable electricity resources – not just renewable energy credits (RECs) or supplies from existing sources – and to retire fossil fuel assets. The other significant challenge was securing buy-in from all city residents and businesses to accept 100 percent net-renewable energy.
We found that the cities collaborated with each other (along with Summit County, which eventually passed its own resolution), each playing different roles to bring Rocky Mountain Power to the table. Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski initiated talks with the utility, and with the help of State Representative Stephen Handy, negotiations resulted in the landmark Community Renewable Energy Act of 2019 which authorized the utility to procure renewable electricity resources and create a renewable electricity bulk-purchase program for the participating cities.
A key concern for Rocky Mountain Power was assurance that additional costs associated with the renewable electricity procurement would not impact rates of its other customers not participating in the program. The Act stipulated that any new costs and benefits associated with renewable electricity procurement would be designated only to the cities receiving it.
The Act set a deadline for other Utah cities to join the bulk purchase program, and this resulted in 23 Utah cities and counties taking the renewable electricity pledge by the end of December 2019. These additional cities and counties included some of Utah’s most populated – Salt Lake County, West Valley City, West Jordan, Orem, and Ogden, totaling about 37 percent of Utah’s electricity load.
Finally, the Act specified that all participating cities’ residents and businesses will receive renewable electricity by default, with a provision for customers to have the opportunity to opt out if they so desired. Academic research suggests that people typically accept defaults as a social norm, so the expectation is that few may opt out of the renewable electricity program.
We argue that the Community Renewable Energy Act of 2019 may be a model for other cities and communities across the nation, though the next few years will be indicative for how successful this Act is for these cities to transition to renewables.
Currently, Rocky Mountain Power is conducting cost estimates for ratepayers, and communities will have the option to move forward or drop out of the agreement depending upon those cost estimates. Salt Lake City-based Energy Strategies, LLC, was commissioned by Park City, Salt Lake City, and Summit County in 2017 to evaluate various cost impacts for each community to achieve 100 percent net-renewable electricity. The studies concluded that electricity rates could be 9 percent to 14 percent higher ($15 to $17 increase in a typical resident’s monthly electricity bill) over the standard rate should the cities transition to 100 percent net-renewable electricity by 2032.
Since those studies, however, wind and solar costs have continued to fall, becoming increasingly cost-competitive with (and in many circumstances, less expensive than) traditional fossil fuel electricity sources. Indeed, another benefit of renewable electricity is price stability because it is not susceptible to the price volatility of the boom and bust cycles associated with fossil fuels. In short, by 2030, renewable electricity may be the most fiscally responsible choice.
We also identified other challenges facing the cities’ pursuit of 100% net-renewable electricity and how the cities were addressing them, including building partnerships with various local non-government organizations, such as Utah Clean Energy, engaging in community education outreach, striving to make sustainable choices convenient for residents and businesses, and making sustainability a visible social norm.
Recent polling shows that Utahns want a stronger transition to cleaner energy and air. The Utah experiences profiled in our research provide insights about how other communities around the globe may chart their own paths toward 100 percent net-renewable electricity.