Governor’s Environmental Summit: Utah’s Energy Future Bright, Say Experts Governor’s Environmental Summit: Utah’s Energy Future Bright, Say Experts
Governor’s Environmental Summit: Utah’s Energy Future Bright, Say Experts

Salt Lake City—It may not be easy being green, but Utah is making strides to reducing pollution and finding alternative means of creating energy, said experts at the Governor’s Energy Summit Thursday.

Along with the innovations a century or two of industrial development have brought—electricity, phones, trains, planes, cars—has come a certain sense of villainy, too, as concerns about the environment have grown, said Kelly Francom, executive director of the Utah Association of Energy Users. However, she said, industry partners have discovered that going green is good for business on a variety of levels.

“Industrial companies’ mindset has evolved,” she said. “Although cost-effectiveness is important, the corporate policies have changed tremendously to a more green mindset and trying to reduce their carbon footprints.”

Coal is another thing that has frequently been vilified, though it shouldn’t be, said Andrew Fry, who is a professor at Brigham Young University and is engaged in research on energy and combustion systems. But the idea that coal power is inherently dirty, he said, is false.

“We have a heavy dependence on coal in this country, and we’re using equipment that’s 50 years old,” he said. “We’re using old technology that was designed to provide power, and reducing pollution to the atmosphere wasn’t even an afterthought at that point.”

As time has gone on, the 50-year-old equipment, which was designed for 20 years of use, has had different pieces of hardware tacked on to reduce some kinds of pollution—nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, specifically, as well as particulates—but carbon dioxide has only recently been of concern to companies or regulators, he said. There are similar means of reducing CO2 from coal plants’ emissions, but like the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide devices, the pollution-reducing measures mean a drastic dip in the plant’s efficiency, Fry said.

“If we want to have clean air, we have to pay a price,” he said. “We’re trying to build new technology onto old technology. Cleanliness goes up but efficiency goes down.”

Rather than continuing to retrofit pollution control measures on old plants, Fry said that technology should be utilized from the outset of new plants.

There are other efficient means of energy production Utah could use more widely in the future, as well. Although nuclear energy frequently elicits a wary response from people, it is also one of the most efficient means of energy production, especially as nuclear power options continue to be developed. In the coming decades, smaller plants will provide more cost-effective means of energy production for smaller municipalities that don’t need massive plants, said Marc Nichol, Senior Project Manager for Used Fuel Storage and Transportation at the Nuclear Energy Institute.

“There’s not much demand for large, 100 megawatt stations now,” he said, noting the smaller plants would be of about the same size and capacity of natural gas power stations now.

Smaller plants, which would become available by the 2020s, lack the economy of size that propelled the development and construction of the large plants, said Nichol. But what they lack in size, they more than make up for in simplicity—larger plants might have more earning potential from more customers, but the safety measures required for such large amounts of radioactive materials made them difficult to manage, too. Smaller plants would require far fewer measures, he said, and some models are being developed that would be cooled by air, rather than pools of water.

A less-discussed source of low-emissions energy could also help reduce Utah’s carbon footprint while increasing its energy production lies beneath the earth: geothermal. Joseph Moore of the Energy and Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah said Utah’s geothermal production is more robust that most would suspect—the state, with 73 megawatts, is third in the nation—and has even greater potential.

Most of the hot spring resources are along the Wasatch Front and heading north, with another cluster in the Sevier Thermal area, as well as some resources in the Uintah Basin. However, much of the power generated is for out-of-state customers: ENEL’s Cove Fort 25 megawatt plant provides power for customers in Arizona, while the Cyrq 10 megawatt plant produces power for California. Furthermore, some hot springs are being used as just that—recreational hot springs—which have therapeutic and monetary value, but are preventing those areas for being used for energy production.

“The energy from geothermal systems is immense, but it is not yet used to its full potential,” Moore said.