Salt Lake City Commits to Zero-Carbon Power Plan

City/Utility Pledge to Go 100% Renewable by 2032

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Jackie Biskupski is mayor of Salt Lake City, Utah.

Vicki Bennett is director of Salt Lake City’s Energy & Environmental Division.

Debbi Lyons is sustainability division director for Salt Lake City, Utah.

Tyler Poulson is sustainability program manager for Salt Lake City, Utah.

Posted: Wednesday, April 11, 2018 10:28 am | Updated: 8:34 am, Fri Apr 13, 2018.

Things are heating up in Salt Lake City, Utah. And not in a good way.

The city is located in a region of the U.S. that climate scientists say is warming at more than twice the national average. It would be bad enough if the only victim of that problem was the area’s $1.3 billion ski resort industry, but local leaders know the stakes are higher than that, as water reserves decline and air quality reaches dangerous levels.

As daunting as these threats appear, Salt Lake City’s municipal government has partnered with its local electric utility to make an historic commitment that could become a model for all communities facing the dire effects of climate change in the years to come. The city and Rocky Mountain Power have signed an agreement and drafted a plan to acquire all the community's electricity from renewable sources by 2032, reducing emissions, saving water and improving air quality in the process.

Salt Lake City gets most of its water from snowmelt in the surrounding mountains, and the city’s water reserves are significantly below historical norms. Higher temperatures are also accelerating the production of ground-level ozone, an invisible, odorless gas that can cause permanent damage to the lungs. Last year the city’s air exceeded the federal ozone standard on more than 20 days.

City officials are bracing for more of the same.

“The climate models show us that we’ll probably get about the same amount of overall precipitation, but it’s going to be coming as rain rather than snow,” said Vicki Bennett, the city’s sustainability department director. That means more of the water runs off in the spring, making less of it available later in the year. She said rising temperatures tend to increase water demand, which only exacerbates the problem.

Last year the Salt Lake County Health Department released a Climate Adaptation Plan for Public Health, which warned of many other health concerns related to the rising temperatures and altered precipitation patterns caused by climate change. From the unprecedented harmful algae blooms seen in Utah Lake, to the introduction of new disease vectors and the increasing cases of asthma, allergies, and other respiratory conditions, the report said climate change has the potential to become the leading cause of death and disease in the 21st century.

As a result, water availability and air quality have been among the biggest concerns in Salt Lake City and the state of Utah for several years. A statewide poll conducted by Envision Utah in 2014 indicated water was the top concern, followed by education, air quality and healthcare.

A 2017 survey by ecoAmerica found that 90 percent of Salt Lake City residents believe clean water is a “critical right,” and 89 percent believe the current generation has “a moral responsibility to create a safe and healthy climate for ourselves and our children.” In that same survey, 82 percent said they believe their community needs to take action now to reduce the pollution that is causing climate change.

These and other concerns have been credited with convincing Salt Lake City to become an early adopter and a national leader in sustainability at the local level.

Bennett, who joined the city in 2001, said its sustainability department started out as “a division within a department” managing routine things like recycling, energy efficiency and community gardens. But, as problems related to climate change intensified, it gradually became “the overarching concern of every administration since then. I’ve worked here under three mayors and all of them have had a full understanding of the climate threats that we face,” she said.

Current Mayor Jackie Biskupski was a Minnesota transplant with a criminal justice degree who said she came to Utah on a ski trip more than 25 years ago “and never left.” The first openly gay elected official in the state, Biskupski won a seat in the Utah House of Representatives in 1998, where she served for 13 years. After working as a senior policy advisor and manager of special projects in the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Department for 15 years, Biskupski was elected mayor of the city in 2015. She is recognized nationally as a champion of climate action, diversity and inclusion in local government.

In February, Biskupski attended the Women4Climate conference in Mexico City, where discussion focused on how climate change is disproportionately impacting minorities and women around the world, often because they lack the resources to withstand the effects of natural disasters. Back home, she said, “we are constantly thinking about the impact on the parts of our community where there is already a preexisting vulnerability. We take that very seriously.”

Almost as soon as Biskupski took office in 2016, the city’s commitment to sustainability went into overdrive. That year, she and the city council signed a 100 percent renewable electricity resolution that included a commitment to reduce carbon emissions 80 percent by 2040.

“Soon afterward, we announced our partnership with Rocky Mountain Power and a joint commitment to provide 100 percent renewable electricity community-wide by 2032,” said Energy and Climate Program Manager Tyler Poulson. A cost-benefit analysis conducted in the spring of 2017 indicated that while consumers could see modest rate increases in the short term, the move would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pollution, save water in the energy generation process, and provide economic development benefits related to the construction and operation of renewable energy facilities.

Biskupski called the Rocky Mountain Power agreement “unprecedented” and said a clause in the contract allows for renegotiation if specific progress hasn’t been made after five years.

“So, it’s holding them, and us, accountable for doing our parts to make sure we stay on track,” she said. “In the conversations I’ve had with other mayors across the country, they are watching this very closely and are very interested in how you can replicate this kind of agreement in other settings.”

Biskupski has been an active member of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, a bipartisan organization that has strongly opposed the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord. She has served as vice chair of the organization’s Alliance for a Sustainable Future, in partnership with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions.

“Mayor Biskupski was the 16th mayor in the country to commit to 100 percent renewable energy at the time and now there are close to 200,” Poulson said.

Sustainability Division Director Debbie Lyons said solar power will play a major role in helping the city reach its 100 percent renewable goal.

“We worked with the utility to help them create a program where residents who can’t put solar on their own property can subscribe to a larger utility-scale solar project,” she said. “That rolled out very quickly and demonstrated the public demand for renewable energy. I think that was a very tangible way our residents could show support and dedication to our renewable energy goals,” Lyons said.

Rocky Mountain Power’s initial 20mw Subscriber Solar Program is now fully subscribed with more than 2,500 residential and 650 business subscribers in 157 communities across the state. Its solar array near Holden, Utah, has more than 81,000 panels and generates more than 48 million kWh of solar energy per year. The wait list for a second solar project is so long that efforts to get it approved are being expedited, according to the utility.

As a municipality, Salt Lake City is subscribed to 3mw of the solar array, which locks in electricity generation rates for 20 years, Poulson said.

“I think the other really impressive story in Utah is what’s been happening with so called ‘qualifying facilities,’ where a lot of third-party solar developers have been able to develop projects totaling over a gigawatt of solar, so that by the end of 2016 Utah was second in the country in terms of per capita solar installed, after Nevada,” he said.

Bennett said the city will take a multi-pronged approach to reaching its carbon reduction goals, beginning with a new solar project launched this year that will get the city’s renewable energy portfolio up to 50 percent for municipal operations by 2020. She said the city will also be working with Rocky Mountain Power to champion new legislation that enhances community choice and offers a pathway forward.

Poulson said the city’s Climate Positive 2040 plan, released in March 2017, outlines how the city will achieve its emission reduction goals primarily by:

1) Reducing energy waste through efficiency and conservation;

2) Transitioning to 100 percent renewable electricity;

3) Electrifying everything (especially transportation).

“Our utility, to its credit, has committed to invest $10 million over the next five years in electric vehicle charging stations. They’re doing that in the form of rebates to customers who are installing them. Also, last year they were awarded a $4 million U.S. Department of Energy grant to work on a whole array of different tactical community engagement issues and government engagement issues that are clearing the way for more EVs on the road,” Poulson said.

In 2017, Salt Lake City installed 28 public EV charging stations and is in the process of installing another dozen this spring. The city currently has more than 130 hybrid vehicles in its fleet and is continuing to add more, Poulson said.

In January, it partnered with Utah Clean Energy to produce an Electrified Transportation Roadmap, which outlines 25 strategies local governments can use to develop electrified transportation solutions. The whitepaper includes information on charging infrastructure, EV fleets, electrified transit, education, incentives, outreach and policies, as well as suggestions for providing equitable access to electrified mobility.

“We’re looking at what we can do now to accelerate the electrification of transportation at all scales, from passenger class to mass transit, and then to really ramp up our game as it relates to reducing energy waste,” Poulson said.

He said electricity generation accounts for about half of the city’s carbon footprint, while transportation makes up another 20 percent. So, he said, with the biggest gains coming from the transition to renewable energy, the city is free to chip away at the rest of the problem in a wide variety of projects and programs.

Bennett said a lot of the city’s success has been accomplished by focusing on the basics.

“Over the last year and a half we’ve passed an ordinance requiring construction waste recycling and another requiring businesses and multifamily units to recycle. We passed a benchmarking and transparency ordinance to require large building owners to benchmark their energy use so they can find energy efficiency options and opportunities.”

In recent years, the city has installed solar panels on seven municipal buildings and is in the process of building two new LEED-certified fire station that are also striving to be net-zero energy. A Sustainability 2017 Year in Review report outlines a plethora of other projects and accomplishments recently achieved by department staff.

For a community with just under 200,000 people, Salt Lake City’s commitment to sustainability stands out. Bennett said there are a dozen people in her Energy & Environmental Division and the city’s Waste & Recycling Division employs another 60. Despite a conservative state government, sustainability in Salt Lake City enjoys a lot of local support, both inside and outside city government.

“For a city our size to have so many people dedicated to sustainability, I’m sure we’re one of the top in the country, and I feel very fortunate that we have a mayor and council that are so supportive of our department…. We couldn’t ask for a better political climate at the local level.”

While Salt Lake City officials expressed some frustration over the lack of action taken by Utah’s predominately Republican legislature, they also expressed hope that things are beginning to change.

“People in Utah, in general, care about clearing our air, but they also care about what’s happening to the earth,” Biskupski said. “Sometimes that falls on deaf ears in state government, but there are some things happening at the state level that are helping,” she said.

On March 20, for example, the legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Gary Herbert signed, an environmental and economic stewardship resolution that, among other things:

• recognizes the impacts of a changing climate on Utah citizens;

• encourages the use and analysis of sound science to understand the causes and impacts of local and regional climates;

• encourages resilient ecosystems that can better adapt to our changing environment; and

• encourages the reduction of emissions through incentives and the support of growth in technologies and services that enlarge the economy.

So, as things heat up in Utah, there appears to be a growing consensus on both sides of the political spectrum that something can and will be done about it.

Sustainable City Network will host a free 1-hour webinar featuring Salt Lake City, beginning at noon Mountain Time on Thursday, April 19. Register to attend live or download a recording afterward at http://sCityNetwork.com/SaltLakeCity.

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