Utah’s Summit County aims for deep carbon reductions

One-time Vietnam combat pilot leads Utah county to adopt climate goals

by Allen Best

PARK CITY, Utah – Donald Trump got elected president the same day that Glenn Wright was elected councilor in Utah’s Summit County. On their respective campaign trails, though, the two men articulated very different energy visions.

Trump vowed to bring back coal, a hollow promise even then. Natural gas, cheap and plentiful, has undermined coal, but so have tumbling prices of renewables. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper noted recently that wind prices have dropped about 66 percent in the last eight years while solar prices plummeted 85 percent. “That is what is allowing us to look at this new future,” he said.

Glenn Wright

Wright, in his campaign stumping, talked about the aspiration of 100 percent renewables for all county operations by 2032. The message connected, at least just enough. Summit County leans heavily Democrat, and Wright, a Democrat, got 53 percent of the votes in his race. Trump got 35 percent in the county.

In turn, Wright was able to persuade his fellow elected councilors in Summit County to adopt a resolution on Oct. 6 that calls for rapid decarbonization in Summit County, first in government operations and then in the broader community.

Summit County has much company in this. Nearly 50 towns, cities, and counties from Portland, Ore., to Orlando, Fla., have embraced goals of 100 percent renewables even as the federal government under Trump has been tilting policies to favor fossil fuels. At last count, 150 mayors had also adopted the Sierra Club-orchestrated pledge of 100 percent renewables.

Among mountain resort towns, South Lake Tahoe had formally embraced a goal of 100 percent renewables last spring. So has Kit Carson Electric, which serves Taos and other ski areas in northern New Mexico. Aspen Electric achieved that feat several years ago, although it should be noted —as conservative bloggers do with prickly, gotcha pride—that the utility only serves a half to two thirds of the town and none of the ski area.

No longer delusional goals

A decade ago, these 100 percent aspirations, even if confined to electrical production, were dismissed as frothy, even delusional. Renewables were too expensive and innately intermittent: “The wind doesn’t always blow, the sun doesn’t always shine,” was the old mantra.

You still hear those tired responses, but not from utilities. They have figured out how to integrate renewables at higher and higher proportions. And cost? Renewables have become much lower in price than coal. New markets are being created to move electrons around the grid, creating price efficiencies. Much more is likely to happen in demand-side management.

“It’s here, it’s happening faster and faster. We don’t know where it will go,” said David Eves, chief executive of the Public Service Co. of Colorado at the recent Center for the New Energy Economy conference in Fort Collins, Colo. “This is very different than even five years ago.”

But 100 percent renewable aspirations adopted by local governments remain stretch goals. Almost no one, if anybody, knows exactly how they will be achieved. Many are couched more safely in terms of carbon neutrality. That means continued use of fossil fuels will be offset by production of renewable or at least non-carbon energy.

Now, some jurisdictions are flexing their jaws for an even bigger bite: economy-wide carbon neutrality, including transportation and heating.

Park City, the largest city in Summit County, may be singular in the scale of its ambition. Elected officials there propose to transition city government operations to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2022. But a decade later, the community is to be altogether carbon-neutral, not just in electricity but in all energy use.

Luke Cartin, Park City’s environmental sustainability manager, claims this is the most ambitious goal in the country. If that claim cannot be verified, as no agency tracks claims, it seems quite possible.

Wright says that he and fellow elected officials in Summit County had at least two long conversations about whether the county’s goals could be achieved. They are less ambitious than those of Park City but still transformative: an 80 percent reduction in county/community greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

“We don’t want to set goals we can’t meet,” said one of his fellow members of the county council.

In the end, the doubts were substantially diminished. “I think we came to the conclusion that these are doable goals,” says Wright.

See also: Why Neil Armstrong matters in carbon arguments

Utah’s Summit County includes a portion of . the Uintah Mountains. Photo/Summit County

Calculating risks

A native of New York state, Wright has a bachelor’s degree in aeronautical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and served in the U.S. Air Force for six years. During that time he was a combat pilot in Vietnam, flying 250 missions as an airborne forward air controller. His job in the light aircraft—now done by drones—was to identify the targets and direct fighters to those targets with their bombs.

Later, he had a 30-year career in industrial safety for the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies. Insurance companies calculate the risks of activities, and even by the year 2000 Wright had begun to study the risks of the changing climate. He sees the risk of accumulating greenhouse gas emissions as too great for what is Summit County’s economically most important natural resource:.

That argument can be made easily in Park City. But Summit County extends to Wyoming, a broad rural expanse that veers conservative. It’s not been a factor. “I haven’t seen a lot of opposition to this,” he says. Aging ranchers, he surmises, have seen the climate change and understand the causes.

Coal-fired power plants were in the past synonymous with carbon emissions, the steam billowing from their smoke stacks a striking visual. But those coal plants have been closing in droves. Last year, transportation became the No. 1 source of CO2 emissions in the United States.

That’s also true in Summit County. The resolution adopted by county councilors identifies transportation as responsible for 47 percent of greenhouse gas emissions, electricity for 30 percent, and the balance, 23 percent, in buildings, solid waste, and land use.

The Jim Bridger Power plant is located 165 miles east of Park City along Interstate 80. Photo/Allen Best

Rocky Mountain Power is a crucial partner for both Summit County and Park City. An investor-owned utility, it delivers electricity that is currently heavy in carbon: 55 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas, with another 10 percent from hydro and the final 10 percent other non-carbon sources. But the utility is already planning to retire a significant amount of its coal generation within the next 20 years.

Cindy Crane, chief executive of Rocky Mountain Power, said in a keynote address at the Western Power Summit that her company is fully committed to working with Park City, Summit County, and other jurisdictions in its service territory that want to transition to renewables.

She stressed two things: energy efficiency and the transition to electrified transportation.

“The best energy is the energy we don’t use,” said Crane, who has been with Rocky Mountain Power for 26 years.

How does a utility make money selling less of its product? Well, in the case of Rocky Mountain Power, and many other utilities, the gap might well be filled by demand for electricity for transportation.

“It’s a different world out there than it was only a few years ago,” said Crane at the conference, held ironically at a hotel a short distance from the corporate headquarters in Broomfield, Colo., of Vail Resorts, now a major player in Utah’s Summit County.

“It’s a changing marketplace by every dimension. It’s being driven first and foremost by our customers. We are also providing new choices for our customers.”

Wright himself embodies some of these new shifts. He drives a plug-in electric car. Roof-top solar allows him to produce most of the power he consumes.

Pathways in Summit County to attainment

The pathway that Wright envisions is to seize opportunities for local generation of both solar and wind as well as in other parts of Utah. “Reducing cost trends in both generation and storage, I believe, will provide opportunities for additional roof-top solar as well as local development of micro-grids with storage.”

Electrified transportation is another pathway. The county has 6 electric buses and will get 7 more next year. Wright hopes that the county government can fully transition to electric vehicles in 5 to 10 years. Then, there’s a future where most new cars will be electric.

Park City’s municipal building is an old school house, now retrofitted with solar panels on the roof. Photo/Allen Best

Buildings pose a more difficult challenge. They’re commonly heated by burning natural gas. Retrofitting them to be heated by electricity would be a major undertaking. For that matter, you may replace a car every 10 to 20 years. Buildings more commonly remain for a century or more. Many of those in Summit County are 20 to 40 years old. The city hall in Park City, an old school, is much, much older.

Utah has been sluggish about requiring energy efficiency in buildings. It has only adopted the 2009 international building code, a brisk improvement over older codes but still two code-updates behind the most recent code update of 2015. Local jurisdictions in Utah are not permitted to adopt their own codes. Homebuilders, says Wright, “are interested unfortunately in the cheapest cost possible.”

Summit County has more leverage in larger developments of 10 units or more. There, county officials can negotiate higher building efficiency standards and use of non-carbon heating. That higher threshold of energy will be part of the discussion as county officials review a new project for two million square feet proposed at the base of the Vail Resorts ski area formerly called The Canyons.

Park City’s Cartin did not identify how his jurisdiction will move around the state limitations but does point to a city council resolution that all city-built facilities must be net-zero on site. Not even Aspen city officials, in approving plans for a new city hall in 2016, were willing to go that far.

Elected officials in Park City identified energy/carbon, along affordable housing and transit, as their most critical priorities.

“The pathways were not identified. The goals were set to give a sense of urgency,” said Cartin in an e-mail response to questions. “It is my role to identify the pathways to success.” He did not identify those pathways, nor did he respond to several requests for clarification.

Political will comes first

Mayor-elect Andy Beerman, a key figure on the council that adopted Park City’s goals, concedes the pathway to carbon neutrality remains unclear. He and other councilors, in adopting the goals, can generally see how about 80 percent of these goals can be achieved. The rest, he concedes, rely upon an assumption of technological advances and sheer determination. He concedes that Park City has left very little room for falling short.

But political will must precede concrete knowledge of how to achieve the goals, he says.

“We decided if we didn’t take leadership, there wasn’t a whole lot of hope,” he says. “We wanted to show it could be done. There was a lot of resistance from staff, because they thought the goal would be very difficult to reach or too expensive for the community to stomach. But as a council, we felt that climate change was an imminent threat.”

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About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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