Moab City, the town of Castle Valley, and Grand County are all participating in the Utah 100 Communities Renewable Energy Program, an initiative made possible by the 2019 House Bill 411, which allows local governments to pursue net 100% renewable electricity for their residents and businesses by 2030. Twenty-three Utah communities chose to pass the required resolution by the end of 2019 allowing them to participate in the program.

House Bill 411 outlines a structure and timeline for participating communities and Rocky Mountain Power, which is Utah’s largest investor-owned utility, to develop renewable energy sources and produce enough power to offset 100% of participating communities’ usage.

“It’s a legal pathway for the consumers to tell the utility what they want and to make it happen,” explained Mila Dunbar-Irwin, sustainability director for Moab City and one of the city’s representatives to the Utah 100 Communities board.

All three Grand County governments involved—the county as well as Castle Valley and Moab—have also signed up to be three of seven “anchor communities,” meaning they’ve agreed to help ensure that the implementation cost of the program, which is estimated to be $700,000, is fully funded. The costs are distributed according to each community’s population and energy use.

“This program is the first of its kind in the nation,” according to the program’s website. “It’s unique in that it serves as a model of municipal partnership with a major utility to deliver a customer choice model.”

HB 411 was passed in April of 2019, and by the end of that year, 23 communities had passed resolutions saying they wanted to be a part of the yet-to-be designed program. The next step for communities who wanted to participate was to sign a governance agreement, which was distributed early this year. So far 15 communities have signed the agreement; the remaining communities have until the end of this year to decide whether they want to proceed as members of the program.

Right now, the board is working on designing the program. They hope to identify viable options for developing new renewable power sources. It’s unknown yet whether those sources will be owned by communities, by third party energy developers, or by Rocky Mountain Power.

“There’s an emphasis on locally produced power,” said Sarah Stock, Grand County Commissioner and a representative on the Community Renewable Energy Board. Stock said she would like to see community-owned power sources developed close to the communities they serve. For example, a solar array positioned near Interstate 70 could be an option for Grand County. However, various factors need to be considered in the development of power sources, including the legal framework of ownership and the capacity of transmission lines near suitable sites. Any proposed projects must be approved by the Community Renewable Energy Board, and also accepted by the Utah Public Service Commission and by Rocky Mountain Power. Earlier this fall the Community Renewable Energy Board hired legal counsel to help with negotiations between Rocky Mountain Power and the Utah Public Service Commission.

“There’s a lot of unknowns because this hasn’t been done before and it’s a model that hasn’t been done in other places,” Stock said.

Another unknown is the exact impact on power rates for consumers, though Dunbar-Irwin said that maintaining low costs is a focus for the board.

“That rate structure will not be in any way significantly more expensive than what we’re paying now,” Dunbar-Irwin said. There is a low-income subcommittee of the board tasked with outlining affordable rates for low-income brackets, and Dunbar-Irwin said existing utility subsidy programs will continue to be available. Dunbar-Irwin pointed out that while power rates under the Community Renewable Energy Program are unknown, no one knows what utility rates will be in 2030 regardless of the new program.

According to the Utah 100 Communities website, when the board is ready to procure a new renewable energy resource, it will analyze the cost and compare it to what customers are already paying for Rocky Mountain Power’s “standard offer.” If the difference is less than 10%, procurement of the new resource will depend on a majority vote of the board. If the difference in the power rate is more than 10%, a supermajority vote of the board will be required to procure the new energy resource. The program is designed on an “opt-out” model, meaning residents and businesses must deliberately decline to participate if they do not want to be included in the renewable energy program and associated rates.

Grand County resident and long-time renewable energy development professional John Knight outlined some technical aspects of developing renewable energy that need to be considered, such as long-duration energy storage: there needs to be storage to maintain power supply even when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. Another consideration is capacity: utilities usually aim to be able to provide 20% more power than the aggregate load typically used, to prepare for any facility failures. Capacity to transport power is also an issue. Transmission lines have a limited amount of capacity to move power from the location of generation to the location it’s being used, and local transmission lines are at or near capacity, meaning some fossil fuel plants would have to go offline to make room for energy from renewable sources. Another option would be for the transmission lines to be upgraded to allow for more power flow, but that’s an expensive solution.

“If you were to add more capacity, it would be a $65 million upgrade,” Knight said.

Though there are challenges, Knight said that because the actual energy sources for wind and solar power plants are free, it can be much cheaper to generate power from those sources than from fossil fuels.

“Renewable energy is cheaper to operate,” he said.

That, as well as consumer demand, may be part of the reason that Rocky Mountain Power and its parent company, PacifiCorp, have released plans over the last three years indicating a shift toward more renewable energy and the retirement of many coal-fired plants. Support from the power company for HB 411 is reflective of that shift. Dunbar-Irwin said that the utility giant’s cooperation was essential in passing the bill in Utah. Rocky Mountain Power’s interest in renewable energy will be a big help in making the Community Renewable Energy Program work.

“One of the big advantages to working with Rocky Mountain Power is that if they want to develop a resource, since they own almost all the transmission lines in the state, they can work it out themselves,” explained Dunbar-Irwin. “It seems like Rocky Mountain Power has sort of ‘read the room,’ and they’re going in the renewable direction on their own.”

The shift to renewable energy will also support other sustainable development, Dunbar-Irwin said, like improving electric vehicle infrastructure, which has been a priority for the state.

“It really supports the case for electrification of buildings and increasing use of electric cars,” Dunbar-Irwin said. “One of the main criticisms of electric cars in the West is that a lot of our power is still from coal. [Shifting to renewable energy] makes using some of these technologies even cleaner than they already are.”

Knight said renewable energy is more popular than ever.

“I’ve been developing renewable energy projects since 2004,” Knight said. “I’ve never seen a faster pace of need than right now. There’s such a high demand for renewable energy right now.”

“This program is the first of its kind in the nation. It’s unique in that it serves as a model of municipal partnership with a major utility to deliver a customer choice model.”