Wind and solar electricity free up needed Utah water

Governor Spencer Cox is pleading with Utahns to conserve water and pray for rain as the state faces what some are calling a worst-in-a-lifetime drought.  Sadly, climate scientists predict that Utah will become even hotter and drier in the coming decades, adversely affecting agriculture, the severity of wildfires, and air pollution.  If water scarcity becomes the norm, state leaders need to take bold action to secure Utah’s water resources, economic future, and quality of life. 

Wind and photovoltaic solar energy use virtually no water, and the state should make their rapid development (along with battery storage) a priority to replace Utah’s dominant, water-intensive coal and natural gas-fired power generation.  Solar is especially promising.  The U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) ranks Utah’s abundant sunshine as one of the nation’s most opportune resources for energy development.

Last year, about 61% of Utah’s 39.4 Terawatt-hours of electricity produced came from coal-fired power plants, according to the EIA.  Coal is set ablaze to produce steam that in turn drives electricity-generating turbines.  When the steam is cooled and condensed back to water, however, much is evaporated away.  A River Network report entitled, “Burning Our Rivers,” estimates that about 692 gallons of water on average is consumed for every megawatt hour (MWh) of coal-fired electricity produced (Table 1, p. 10), the amount of power a typical home consumes each month.  For 2020, this equated potentially to over 16.6 billion gallons of water!

Natural gas is rapidly replacing coal in Utah, and the EIA reports that a quarter of Utah’s electricity came from gas-fired power plants in 2020.  Gas-fired electricity is cleaner and expends only about 260 gallons of water per MWh produced, according to a recent Duke University study.  Nevertheless, this still equated to about 1.7 billion gallons of water last year.  Fracking to release natural gas from the earth is also quite water intensive, and the U.S. Geological Survey says that anywhere from 1.5 million to 16 million gallons of water is consumed to frack a single well, depending on the type of well and rock formation.

The bottom line is that switching to wind and solar could save Utah billions of gallons of water annually.

Fortuitously, wind and solar prices have declined dramatically in recent years, becoming cost competitive with and under many circumstances, less expensive than coal and gas. 

These remarkable cost reductions are evident in how Rocky Mountain Power’s (RMP) parent company — PacifiCorp – has evaluated the cost of Utah solar in 2017 versus 2019.  In 2017, for example, PacifiCorp’s 20-year Integrated Resource Plan assessed that Utah solar would cost $51.39 per MWh (in 2016 dollars, Table 6.2, p. 111).  Just two years later, PacifiCorp assessed that power from a Utah solar plant would cost only $31.31 per MWh (in 2018 dollars, Table 6.2, p. 142) – representing a 39 percent decrease!  

Indeed, in 2019, PacifiCorp announced that closing 20 of its 24 coal-fired power plants over the next 20 years – some decades ahead of their scheduled retirements – and replacing them with wind and solar would save $300 to $500 million.  In short, RMP already recognizes that renewables are increasingly economical, and renewable energy prices are expected to continue to decline. 

Utah demand for wind and solar is growing as well.  In 2019, 23 Utah cities and counties tentatively resolved to adopt 100% net-renewable electricity by 2030 through the Community Renewable Energy Act.  Participants included some of RMP’s biggest customers, including Salt Lake City, Salt Lake County, West Valley City, Orem, and Ogden, representing about 37% of Utah’s electricity load.  In the coming months, these customers will be confirming their continued involvement by agreeing to pay their share of administrative costs and jointly negotiating future renewable power rates from RMP.

Several customers have already confirmed their participation, including Salt Lake City, Park City, and Cottonwood Heights, and other communities still contemplating their commitment should consider not just the declining costs but the water saving benefits of renewables in their decision calculus.  

Deploying wind and photovoltaic solar electricity should be a priority for Utah as leaders tackle this year’s worst-in-a-lifetime drought and prepare for a parched future. 

Edwin R. Stafford is a marketing professor at Utah State University who researches renewable energy issues.  He serves on the Utah advisory council of The Western Way, and he co-leads the annual Utah High School Clean Air Marketing Contest.