Five of the six Summit County municipalities have joined a renewable energy program
The differences between east and west Summit County can be stark, and they were on full display at the October Council of Governments meeting.
Several mayors met with County Council members and heard a presentation about a community renewable energy program that would allow their residents the choice to purchase energy from renewable sources in coming years.
Park City Mayor Andy Beerman joined with County Councilors Glenn Wright and Roger Armstrong in vocally championing the project, but a couple of the East Side mayors pushed back. None of the East Side representatives voiced strong support for the project or its mission.
But three months later, all of the local governments represented in that room but one had completed the first step necessary to enter into the program.
Coalville, Francis, Kamas, Oakley, Park City and Summit County passed resolutions by the Dec. 31 deadline that state the goal of allowing their residents their option of purchasing 100% of their energy from renewable sources by 2030.
Henefer is the only municipality in Summit County that chose not to participate. Its mayor, Kay Richins, said earlier this month that the Town Council discussed the matter, but decided there were too many unanswered questions about the program and what it would commit the town to do.
The program was signed into law by Gov. Gary Herbert in March following the passage of H.B. 411.
Essentially, each governmental entity that passed an ordinance by the end of 2019 stating the renewable energy goal is eligible to enter into a program that will grant its residents access to renewable energy resources that are anticipated to be built by Rocky Mountain Power for the new pool of customers. So far, 20 cities and counties have done so.
The resolution is the first step, and municipalities are free to back out without penalty. Nearly 1 million people live in those 20 cities and counties, and that number comprises the approximate amount of customers that would purchase the renewable energy from Rocky Mountain Power in years to come and determines roughly how many kilowatts of energy the company would need to procure, possibly by building new solar or wind projects. It is anticipated that the number of customers will be less than that total, as some people will likely opt out of the program.
The next steps are for the participating cities and counties to craft an agreement between themselves to solidify how they’ll move forward in negotiations with Rocky Mountain Power as a collective then enter into an agreement with the utility to identify the optimal renewable resources to meet the need and the projected renewable energy costs. Rocky Mountain Power would then file an application with the Utah Public Service Commission to set the power rates. The timing is not certain, but organizers point to the end of 2020 as a goal for the collective communities agreement and a deal with Rocky Mountain Power. That’s likely around the time the communities will first be required to help fund the work required by Rocky Mountain Power and the Public Service Commission to determine renewable resources and establish renewable energy rates.
The 20 cities and counties include Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, Alta, Moab and Grand County, according to Jeff Bousson, climate program manager with Utah Clean Energy. According to census data, that adds up to about 860,000 people, Bousson said.
That’s a far cry from the three or four cities that started the ball rolling in 2014 and 2015, said Lisa Yoder, Summit County’s sustainability director.
“I’m quite stunned with the number of communities that jumped on,” she said. “I’m delighted how things have gone. I had no idea there would be so many communities who would look to go forward.”
Yoder said Salt Lake City, Park City and Summit County worked closely with the Public Services Commission, the Utah Office of Consumer Services and Rocky Mountain Power to figure out the steps that would be required if a community wanted renewable energy options.
She recalled a year of negotiations followed by another eight months of drafting legislative language and then the push to get the bill passed.
“Oh gosh, (it was) quite a long time,” Yoder said.
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, sponsored the bill and it eventually gathered nine co-sponsors in the Legislature, including Rep. Tim Quinn, who represents Park City.
Bousson said the bill’s passage made the program possible.
“Passing H.B. 411 was instrumental. It set the foundation, set the pathway to work with,” he said.
Early this year, Summit County entered into an agreement with Bousson’s firm, Utah Clean Energy, to educate local municipalities about the contents of the bill and possible steps forward.
Bousson said that his goal was not to sell the program, but rather to provide accurate information. In some places, he said, the elected officials wanted to take aggressive action on climate change and to be recognized as national leaders on the issue. In other places, no one would mention the words “climate change.”
Bousson said a common refrain among those who supported the program was that it would offer their constituents choice.
In Summit County, Francis Mayor Byron Ames called it a “no-brainer” for the City Council, adding that it passed unanimously.
“It totally made sense to everybody on the council and I was glad they were supportive of it,” he said. “It’s an easy sell — this is a commitment for us to be involved. We don’t have to do it when they figure out what (the costs will be).”
In Oakley, Mayor Wade Woolstenhulme said the “writing is on the wall” that the county is moving in the direction of renewable energy.
“Basically, it’s where it’s headed,” he said. “But I think it’s good. You know, sometimes, the price of it is way more than people can afford, so my only fear with it is it puts an undue burden on people if they can’t afford it. Really we’re just kind of giving people a choice.”
Mayor Richins in Henefer said the risk of committing to an unknown outweighed the potential benefit.
“It’s not that we’re not interested in renewable resources — we are,” Richins said. “Everybody wants to jump on the green bandwagon, that’s the thing to do. It’s not that we’re not for conserving energy, which we want to. But to go hog wild into something where we don’t have all the answers — we’re a bit cautious.”
The group of 20 cities and counties next have to hash out an agreement between themselves to set the path forward for negotiations.
Voting on the clean energy resolution was the first time politicians had to be on the record about the program, but the first time cities and towns will have to pony up funds is likely to be the next decision point for those officials.
One key provision is that no costs for implementing the renewable energy program can be put onto ratepayers that aren’t involved, meaning the group of 20 will have to pay its own way through the approval process. Since it’s the first time an application like this will be considered, it is anticipated state regulators will hire consultants to help determine rates.
The only cost to participating communities is likely to be incurred in late 2020 or early 2021 when the municipalities enter into an agreement with Rocky Mountain Power to begin analysis of the renewable resources that would be needed to meet the collective demand for renewable energy and for the consulting work necessary to review the agreement and set rates, organizers said.
“Whatever that cost is, it would be shared by all the communities (and they) will have to agree how to make decisions together, how to split those costs,” Yoder said. “Presumably, one would think the communities with the biggest customer base would pay the larger portion, compared to, say, Francis at a smaller cost. That all has to be determined.”
Individual customers will be able to opt out of the program at any time, Yoder said.
In an effort to keep rates low, Utah Clean Energy staff attorney Hunter Holman said it’s likely the new energy projects would be phased in over time, so that the upfront costs of constructing renewable energy assets wouldn’t be absorbed by the ratepayers all at once.
Bousson said the major difference between this program and another Rocky Mountain Power program called Blue Sky is that this is contemplated to create “utility scale (renewable energy) resources intended to be dispatched to the RMP user,” rather than funding smaller projects and offsetting energy use by purchasing clean energy produced elsewhere.
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