November 1, 2011

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Catching Sunshine

The Elusive Promise of Renewable Energy

Jeff Vanek

November 1, 2011

Utah has a desert climate—it’s generally open, dry and sunny, especially in the south. So it should be a natural spot for developing renewable energy sources like solar and wind, right?

In short: yes. But the renewable energy industry faces many challenges that have slowed progress to a snail’s pace.

In fact, 98 percent of the energy produced in Utah comes from fossil fuels: coal, natural gas and crude oil. A scant 2 percent comes from renewable sources like hydroelectric, geothermal, wind, solar and biomass projects.

One significant project, a solar installation on the roof of the Salt Palace Convention Center, illustrates the limits of renewable energy. When the installation is completed, solar panels will cover 600,000 square feet—larger than six football fields—and it will be among the largest rooftop solar arrays in the country. The project will generate 2.6 megawatts of energy, which sounds like a lot, but it is barely enough to account for 25 percent of the Salt Palace’s energy use.

Of course 25 percent is still a step in the right direction, and companies and researchers are looking for ways to develop and improve technologies. While renewables are a tiny fraction of our overall energy consumption, concern over the future supply and environmental impact of fossil fuels is driving further development of renewable energy sources.

Buried Potential

“Utah has a potential of 1,322 gigawatts of power available in renewable energy in solar, wind, geothermal, hydro and biomass. Renewable energy represents a significant source of energy and potential jobs for Utah,” says Samantha Julian, director of the state Office of Energy Development.

Cost is the biggest challenge facing renewable energy production in the state. Although costs are rapidly coming down and efficiencies rising, especially in the areas of wind and solar energy, the cost to produce renewable energy is still considerably higher than the use of fossil fuels.

That is changing, especially as consumers begin to ask for renewable energy. California is an insatiable energy market, and energy company First Wind is profitably selling wind-generated energy to that state.

First Wind created the largest wind project in the Utah—Milford Wind—located just outside of Milford. The development has a total of 97 turbine generators that have a production capacity of approximately 306 megawatts of power. This power, enough for 64,000 homes, is sold to customers in California.

Even though the power flows to California, the environmental and economic benefits flow to the town of Milford and the residents of Beaver and Millard Counties. Just as with fossil fuel exploration and development, renewables create new jobs and pay taxes into the local communities.

Another challenge for renewables is the cost required to build transmission infrastructure. Many of the greatest potential areas for renewable energy generation are in remote areas that do not currently have an electrical transmission infrastructure in place.

Milford Wind benefits from proximity to the Intermountain Power Agency (IPA) in Delta, which already has transmission infrastructure to California. An 88-mile line connects Milford Wind to IPA, and from there to California.

Utah is taking steps to address the issue of energy transmission. Housed within the state Office of Energy Development is the Utah Generated Renewable Energy Network (UGREEN). This program is intended to help energy companies overcome the cost hurdle associated with building infrastructure.

“UGREEN was created to provide an innovative bond-based financing mechanism for funding energy transmission projects and supporting them to deliver renewable energy to the grid. Thus, UGREEN serves the critical need of helping renewable energy project developers to cost-effectively fund the transmission infrastructure necessary to connect their projects to the existing grid system,” explains Gerardo Zepeda-Bermudez, special advisor at UGREEN.

Unreliable Sources

Wind and solar energy—the two sources that glean the most attention—are also the two least reliable sources. Neither provides a constant supply of energy—the wind doesn’t always blow nor does the sun always shine. When there is no wind or sunshine, some other source of energy must be used, such as coal or natural gas, to keep the power flowing.

“As we move into renewable energy, the key point we need to think about is storage. How do we store the energy so it is available at the time we need it? How do we have solar energy when the sun isn’t shining? How do we use wind energy when the wind isn’t blowing?” says Kent Udell, director of the Sustainability Research Center at the University of Utah. “This idea of storage is a big issue and really the key to being able to have an economical future for renewable energy.”

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