Energy production in Utah could change drastically during the next few decades. Gone, perhaps, will be the massive coal-fired power plants that generate inexpensive amounts of electricity for an energy-hungry state. Instead, geothermal plants might churn out the megawatts consumers demand, while wind farms, natural gas turbines and solar panels would supplement that power with clean, renewable energy.
Conventional wisdom says the latter “will never substitute for base-load power from coal-fired plants,” said Vanessa Pierce of HEAL Utah, a group that encourages production of more renewable energy. “We believe, though, it can be done with existing technology.” HEAL’s vision of the state’s energy future was laid out in a recently released study. It makes the case that renewable energy, when paired with power storage and greater conservation and efficiency efforts, can reliably meet the state’s growing energy demands by 2050.
Office of Consumer Services director Michele Beck — who served on a diverse advisory board for the study with Jeff Edwards, CEO of the Economic Development Corp. of Utah, and Ned Hill, former dean of the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University, among others — said those involved worked hard to ensure the study was based upon realistic assumptions. “The key, though, will be what it is going to cost [to achieve that vision] and how that compares to the benefits consumers might see,” Beck said, noting that isn’t clear given that carbon-related costs and emissions remain a highly political issue.
Although renewable resources such as wind and solar power have drawbacks — electricity isn’t produced when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining — the author of HEAL’s study said existing and emerging energy storage technologies can overcome those shortcomings. Arjun Makhijani, president of the Institute of Energy and Environmental Research, said “compressed air energy storage systems” that pump pressurized air in caverns for later release to turn turbines, and emerging battery technologies could help balance power availability and demand in Utah’s future.
There is a 110-MW compressed air storage system already in use in Alabama, Makhijani pointed out, while noting that a Utah company, Magnum Gas Storage, is considering developing such a facility in salt formations near Delta. “It is something we’re considering, although we haven’t done any work in that direction yet,” said Rob Webster, chief operating officer at Magnum, a company that is developing salt caverns for natural gas storage. “But we do have a salt formation that would be ideal.”
Like Magnum’s compressed air storage system plans, it could be years before Utah approaches the renewable energy nirvana that HEAL envisions. Yet Pierce believes the goal is achievable if the state embraces “smart-grid technology” that would allow electricity to be dispatched and used in the most efficient manner possible. “Right now our electrical grid is operating like a mainframe computer in an iPhone world,” she said.
Instead, Pierce envisions a future where home appliances communicate with the grid and turn on when there’s an abundance of electricity available. It would be a world where the buildings in the state use less than 50% of the power consumed today.
HEAL’s study suggests that pairing renewable resources with energy storage would allow renewable energy to provide 75 to 100% of Utah’s electricity needs, which is far beyond the goal of 20 to 30% adopted by many states.
Filed Under: Turbines