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Can Salt Lake City meet its net zero emissions goal?

Posted at 11:46 AM, Feb 02, 2023

SALT LAKE CITY — With Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall having announced a goal to eliminate dependence on fossil fuels by 2030, just how close is that goal to becoming a reality?

Turns out, there's a long way to go in a short seven years.

In fact, Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest energy provider, says they aren’t even planning on hitting that target. With the company currently delivering 69% of energy dependent upon fossil fuels, reaching Mendenhall's goal is a big ask.

"We know it's going to take some time, which is why we've looked at getting to what we call a net zero future by 2050," said Rocky Mountain Power spokesperson Jona Whitesides.

Net zero means off-setting the percentage of fossil fuels burned with renewable energy, either generated or purchased by Rocky Mountain Power.

Right now, customers who want solar energy can pay for it, but will be handcuffed to market prices which can fluctuate with the amount of solar available at the time. Even on Rocky Mountain Power’s website, no new blocks of solar energy are currently available to purchase and is only accessible to the existing several hundred solar users.

Hydro electric, wind, geothermal and solar make up 39% of the power on the grid. A nuclear power plant slated for construction in Wyoming will take the place of two coal-fired plants by the end of the decade, but that could take even longer with TerraPower, the company building the plant, announcing at least a two-year delay due to the difficulty of obtaining uranium due to the conflict in Ukraine.

"As far as saying we're going to be completely to renewable energy by (2030) is not what we have planned," added Whitesides. "Again, our our goal is to reduce to get net zero carbon emissions by 2050. We hit our 25% at 2020. More slated to be at that 69% by 2030."

On top of that, Whitesides said there are cost increases with renewable energy sources.

Absolutely. However, if we can do that in a 10-tiered approach and ensure that we are working within the revenue and the budgets that we have, then our commitment is to ensure that we have affordable energy for our customers," he said.

The executive director of Heal Utah, Lexi Tuddenham, has a different outlook on both what is possible for renewable energy in Salt Lake City and also what Mayor Mendenhall means.

"We've known about Salt Lake City's goals because they've been part of the community renewable energy program for a while now. So it was not a surprise for us. We just knew that she was setting the course and stating it publicly," said Tuddenham.

But what about Rocky Mountain Power's stance that they won't be able to meet the 2030 goal? Tuddenham says the mayor's mark is to hit 100% net renewable, which means across the electric grid, not a one for one; meaning there are some caveats, that it's not a goal of 100% of the people using renewable energy, but 100% net renewable.

Disregarding the semantics, Salt Lake City and the rest of Utah will not be able to completely eliminate dependence on fossil fuels by 2030, even if net zero is an appropriate goal.

But Tuddenham thinks Rocky Mountain Power can tap into more available private and government money to help with, and perhaps accelerate, the renewable energy transition.

"There's huge incentives there, millions and millions and billions of dollars to help us move forward," she explained. "And I think I believe that Utah will be smart enough to tap into that, because we don't want to leave money on the table."

But it’s about more than money with Utah having two of the most polluting power plants in the country

"They not only haze up our national parks and shorten viewsheds, but they also affect the health of our people. And so that, in the application of that rule, just in the first year, it would save 1,000 lives," said Tuddenham.

Mendenhall’s office said they understand the topic can be construed in various ways. They says Rocky Mountain Power will soon be helping Salt Lake City purchase more clean energy to further offset fossil fuel generated energy, but admit it is impossible to isolate clean energy on the grid to send just to Salt Lake, although it will help the city get to net 100% renewable energy.