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Life signs for Utah’s alternative-energy market.

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Western governors, including Utah’s Jon Huntsman Jr., are calling for federal aid to help develop new energy sources as alternatives to the ubiquitous coalfields. The possibilities can be seen in southwestern Utah where existing alternative-energy projects range from planned wind farms to tapping underground steam to an attempt at turning hog manure into fuel.

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Millard and Beaver counties are the epicenter. A Massachusetts wind company, UPC Wind, is negotiating with county commissioners on a formula to tax 80 wind turbines the company hopes will be producing 200 megawatts of power by the end of next year.

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Beaver County Commissioner Don Willden said the wind blows often enough to produce energy about 25 percent of the time. “I thought it was the windiest place in the world until I went to Hawaii,” he said.

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Alternative-energy tax breaks were approved by the Legislature this year which sweetened the pot for UPC Wind to build in Utah. The project is estimated to bring about $1.5 million annually to Millard County, said County Commissioner Kathy Walker, though the amount depends on the outcome of ongoing negotiations.

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In addition to the coming wind farm, Beaver County is home to geothermal fields where magma deep underground creates jets of steam. A Rocky Mountain Power plant there taps the steam power to turn turbines. Construction is currently underway on a plant addition that will tap the energy-producing power of the field’s hot water.

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Three additional geothermal projects are proposed for Utah, potentially increasing geothermal energy produced in Utah six times over current output, according to the Utah State Energy Office. Six wind projects on the books would up Utah’s wind energy production from less than 1 megawatt today to about 500 megawatts.

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Tracy Livingston, who has proposed a nine-turbine wind farm in Spanish Fork Canyon, said a wind farm is less expensive than new coal-fired power plants, particularly if future coal plants are required to produce “clean” power.

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But Livingston said wind won’t catch on in Utah unless the state adopts a “renewable portfolio” policy requiring the purchase of a percentage of electricity from sources other than burned fossil fuel.

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“If the attitude of the Legislature is, ‘We’ve got plenty of coal and natural gas,’ [a renewable portfolio] will have a difficult time getting passed,” he said.

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Public policy is just one of the obstacles to be faced before alternative energy can be widely developed in Utah.

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Early this year, the corporate owner of Beaver County’s Circle Four Farms abandoned a three-year effort to turn hog waste into bio-fuel. The process worked but would never be a moneymaker, Circle Four’s owner, Smithfield Foods, determined.

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And Rocky Mountain Power doesn’t have geothermal expansion plans, said spokesman David Eskelsen. The plant puts out about 33 megawatts including the pending expansion, compared to 400 to 600 megawatts from the company’s coal plants. “The economies of scale that yield customer benefits tend to push utilities toward larger-scale units,” he said.

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Still, the federal Bureau of Land Management is finding new interest in Utah’s untapped geothermal resources. Potential investors have asked the BLM to lease 6,000 acres of Beaver County land for geothermal power use.

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“The markets are changing dramatically,” said Tim Wagner, who is leading an alternative-energy campaign for Utah’s chapter of the Sierra Club. UPC Wind’s Milford project, for example, was made possible by California cities contracting in advance to purchase resulting power, a move essentially forced by a new California law.

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Wagner predicts rapid development of alternative-energy production in Utah. He’s a member of Huntsman’s climate-change commission that was recently asked to develop a renewable-power policy for the state. The group additionally is thinking up incentive schemes such as designation of alternative-energy zones in areas of southern Utah baked by the sun.

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“Utah has 300 days of sunshine per year,” he said. “I think the state is poised for a huge revolution in energy production.”

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