For politicians, the phrase “green and clean” is so overused, it is as renewable as geothermal hot air. Meanwhile, activists worry politicians are for “green and clean” energy only after every last fossil fuel has been dug up and burned. To test the political will to utilize green and clean energy technologies, anti-nuclear advocates at the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah have drafted a plan to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 100 percent of today’s level by the year 2050. HEAL Utah’s model also uses existing technologies at sites the state has already measured for their renewable-energy capacity.
“We turned the tables on the coal folk, because usually the renewable people are the pie-in-the-sky dreamers, saying we need all this stuff to come together, and we trust it will because the sun and the moon desire this,” jokes Arthur Morris, state organizer for HEAL Utah, who assisted lead researcher Arjun Mahkijani in preparing the model. “This works, and it’s the clean-coal people who are fantasizing.”
The technology needed to realize this green dream may exist, but whether or not state policymakers will take it seriously depends on critical factors like passage of a federal carbon tax that makes coal power less lucrative and renewable energy’s hefty price tag more palatable. More importantly, the question remains of how Utah will replace the roughly 1,800 coal-industry jobs that exist now in Utah’s energy sector.
HEAL Utah has historically challenged nuclear-waste storage, weapons testing and nuclear power for their cost and high water demand, but when HEAL presented these concerns to legislators, the lawmakers in turn asked how it’s possible to keep the lights on with the Sierra Club against coal and HEAL Utah dead set against nuclear.
“This study is a three-year process we went through to be able to answer that question,” Morris says.
In HEAL Utah’s office, Morris runs through a PowerPoint packed with the kinds of graphs and charts only a handful of utility planners would be able to understand at first glance. While the science is complicated, Morris says the goal of the initiative is not. They’ve projected energy plans for four decades based on several renewable options, as well as a nuclear plus “clean coal” option and the “business as usual” projection, which maintains the number of coal power plants in the state.
One renewable scenario, “eUtah,” shows Utah using 100 percent renewable energy in 2050. The study culled its data from solar-energy projections released by the Utah Renewable Energy Task Force’s study of possible solar panel sites, possible geothermal sites and meteorological data to estimate wind. The renewable system depends on the Compressed Air Energy Storage system, which exists now only in a plant in Germany and one in Alabama. The system takes excess generated energy and stores it in underground caverns, then uses compressed air, heated with a small amount of natural gas, to pump the energy back out when it’s needed.
All of the scenarios are projected to meet Rocky Mountain Power’s current daily demand of a 12 percent reserve margin—the kind of demand that produces the typical lighting Utahns use every day.
“In layman’s terms, that means when the light is on, I don’t have to tell anyone,” Morris says.
Whether or not state policymakers will see the light is another story. The projections in the study don’t consider net job gains or losses in taking coal out of the equation, though Gov. Gary Herbert’s 10 Year Strategic Energy Initiative lists jobs as a top priority in plotting the state’s upcoming energy plans. That plan cites coal as employing as many as 1,850 Utahns in 2008 and as having provided the state with 42 percent of its energy needs that same year.
“The governor is a jobs guy,” says Ted Wilson, director of the governor’s energy task force. “He wants to make sure there’s a smooth transition [to green energy] that maintains our level of jobs and our level of economic cost, which, right now, is very competitive in the energy business.”
Morris hopes that the as many as 2,000 coal-based jobs would not have to be collateral damage if the state helped retrain those skilled employees to work with renewable energy.
“We’re talking about a workforce of people with comparable [skills]. There may be some retraining that’s needed. It’s not easy—but it’s possible,” Morris says.
Wilson says that had the governor’s own task force projected out as far as HEAL Utah did, it likely also would have advanced a future less reliant on coal—Wilson has seen estimates saying Utah’s own surface level supplies of coal will likely run out in 10 to 15 years. But ultimately, jobs aren’t the only reason Utah’s state leaders love coal—the fuel is cheap. And a cheap fuel supply is one investors will invest in, especially considering that coal can provide energy for roughly 6 cents a kilowatt hour, when the cost of many renewable fuels is double that amount.
“Money is a coward,” Wilson says, “especially in recessionary times.” Until the market is comfortable with the price of renewable energy, it will stay with coal, even if it saps all of the supply in Utah. If there aren’t other constraints on the price of coal, Wilson says, the state could just as well buy coal for its plants from Wyoming.
It's not just that coal's cheap--renewable options are expensive. HEAL’s “flagship” model, the 100 percent renewable scenario is also the most costly, since current technology wastes or “spills” excess energy that can’t be used and can’t be stored—such as when storage capacity might be full during summer months when solar energy creates large surpluses of energy.
The eUtah model would cost consumers $1.4 billion because of this spilled energy. But if one adds to this mix the possibility of a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade plan like the one that nearly passed in Congress in 2010, then the costs of renewable makes more sense. According to HEAL’s study, if a conservative carbon tax put a $45 per metric ton cost to carbon, that would jack up the price of coal by $10 billion.
Chris Thomas, executive direct of HEAL Utah, says the reality is that coal may be cheap and dirty now, but in the future, it will simply be dirty when one factors in possible carbon taxes and diminished supplies.
“Given that a future of coal and fossil fuels entails huge risks, the question is: How are you going to manage that risk?” Thomas says the optimal scenario for Utah may not actually be the eUtah 100 percent renewable plan, but rather a portfolio that is 75 percent renewables and 25 percent natural gas, which would reduce emissions by 80 percent in 2050 and be cheaper than all other green scenarios. Still, Thomas and Morris say that 40 years is a long time and that if Utah preps itself by investing in renewables, it could position the state to be an innovator in “intelligent grid” systems that could maximize storage of renewable energy and do it more cheaply than their projections indicate.
But it’s also possible that in the same time period, a clean coal revolution might prolong Utah’s love affair with its preferred fossil fuel.
Morris’ reaction to such a possibility: “That’s awesome. We don’t need a revolution because our system works and it works tomorrow.”