SALT LAKE CITY - Being able to turn on the lights when it gets dark is one of the electricity-enabled conveniences we take for granted. But with accelerating concern that energy production is driving climate change, do we humans need to adapt and change?
Last week saw two flash points in this battle over energy usage and environmental stewardship. In hearings held in Denver, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and Washington, the U.S. Environmental Protection Administration took testimony and sought to build support for its rule imposing a 30 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030.
The EPA rule announced earlier this summer imposes state-by-state reductions in power plant emissions of carbon dioxide, the main ingredient in greenhouse gases. Although CO2 is not directly harmful to human health, the EPA has emphasized how the rule will also drop particulate matter pollution by 25 percent. That does make people sick.
On a separate but related front, here in Salt Lake hundreds of protesters rallied at the Utah Public Service Commission on Tuesday to blast Rocky Mountain Power’s effort to impose a $4.65 per month “net metering” fee on those who use solar panels and connect to Rocky Mountain’s electrical grid. Connecting to the grid means solar users can sell excess photovoltaic energy back to the utility and still turn on lights when the sun isn’t shining.
The fee is an effort to make solar panel owners pay their fair share of electricity transmission costs, utility spokesmen said. Opponents decried it as a “sun tax,” and a disincentive to more widespread solar adoption.
Both the EPA and Rocky Mountain Power developments highlight the pressure now being put on fossil fuel production. Coal has traditionally been king. Of the more than 4 billion kilowatt hours of electricity consumed by Americans last year, 39 percent came from coal, with 27 percent from natural gas, 19 percent from nuclear power, 7 percent from hydropower, 4.1 percent from wind, and 0.2 percent from solar.
But a decade ago, few could have expected how technologies of fracking would spur a boom in cheap, natural gas, which burns twice as clean as coal. Of the sources of electricity consumption in 2003, 51 percent came from coal and 16 percent from natural gas, with 20 percent from nuclear power, 7 percent from hydropower, 0.2 percent from wind, and a negligible amount from solar.
In addition to the dramatic swing from coal to natural gas, something else has been spurred on by advances in technology: Renewable energy is enjoying a dramatic growth spurt.
Wind power grew 20-fold and now enjoys an important place in many states' energy portfolios. Although solar remains de minimus, the price for photovoltaic panels has dropped. Business models like SolarCity’s leases are beginning to stoke the promise that the nation could be weaned, gradually, toward more environmentally friendly sources of production.
Business interests traditionally influenced by the fossil fuel industry, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, blasted the EPA rule for what it projected to be an economic cost of $50 billion.
But business interests closer to the information technology industry say that the 30 percent reduction, far from being excessive, will be “easy to achieve,” in the words of the Advanced Energy Economy, a new trade group in Washington and San Francisco.
“Our businesses are saying, even if some view the EPA rules as adverse, we view it as an economic growth opportunity to modernize our electric power system,” said Graham Richard, CEO of AEE. “This rule will drive investment in an electric power system that is sorely in need of it.”
Richard, the former mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana, sees electric utilities on the cusp of a technology transition. He’s built up the AEE as the “business voice” counterpart to fossil fuel lobbyists. The EPA rules recognized his group’s compendium of 40 solutions for cutting carbon emissions. They include tools for using information technology to enhance the efficiency of buildings; cost-effective ways for new businesses to enter the electricity-generating market with solar, wind and hydroelectric power; and strengthening the “smart grid,” which puts new efficiencies into managing the transmission of electricity.
Because it costs a lot of money to transmit electricity over this grid, each state’s geography of energy production will differ. In the case of Utah, we are nearly twice as dependent as the nation on coal: It accounts for 78 percent of our electrical energy. Natural gas constitutes 17 percent, hydroelectric 1.3 percent, wind 2.1 percent, and with negligible amounts from other sources, including solar.
But as we’ve seen on the national level, those percentages can change. Increasingly, utilities see the need to balance coal with forms of advanced energy — with rooftop solar as a more and more important part of that mix. Let’s keep the sun shining on new ways to produce, conserve and transmit electrical energy.
Drew Clark is opinion editor of Deseret News. His email address is email@example.com.