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My view: Renewable energy is Utah's future

By Arthur Morris

Published: Wednesday, Oct. 19 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

In the proud tradition of Don Quixote, Kimball Rasmussen — the CEO of a coal power plant — has taken to jousting with windmills, according to a recent story ("Green jobs and energy debate on Utah's Capitol Hill," Sept. 22). And just as the windmills posed no threat to Cervantes' hero, windmills aren't the enemy threatening Rasmussen's coal plants.

Testifying before the Utah Legislature's Interim Committee, Rasmussen argued that wind and solar resources are unfit to meet Utah's electric needs. He claimed their promise as job creators and economic engines is not just overblown but will cost the state jobs in the coal sector. According to Rasmussen, renewable energy is an enemy of economic growth.

Rasmussen's real enemy is not renewables — but reality. The reality is that coal's days as the mainstay of Utah's electricity system are numbered. Utah's reserves of affordable coal are shrinking, and the health costs of coal combustion — asthma; lung and heart diseases; and even shortened lives — are becoming impossible to ignore. These realities will close Utah's coal plants long before windmills.

Rasmussen's use of "fact" in his testimony to the Legislature is misleading. Rasmussen argues that "when wind jobs are compared head-to-head with coal-fired electric alternatives, the gross job gains in wind are more than offset by net job losses in coal." This is simply incorrect because there are no actual proposals in the state that would create this sort of "wind-for-coal" tradeoff.

Entrepreneurs don't build a wind farm so they can shut down a coal plant. Entrepreneurs build wind farms to meet the population's growing demand.

Furthermore, it's simply not true that wind power produces fewer jobs than coal power, although Rasmussen strained to create that impression. Let's turn to the best research out there: An analysis of 13 peer-reviewed, independently funded and conducted studies of clean energy production published by the University of California, Berkeley. It found that renewable energy generation technologies, like wind and solar power, create more jobs per dollar invested than coal or natural gas. For the same amount of money, the wind industry creates 5.7 jobs, and the solar industry creates 5.65, while coal comes up short only creating 3.96 jobs.

Utah needs to reject the logic of a coal power plant owner determined to hang on to his business. Instead, Utah must proactively prepare for the rest of this century by developing cost-effective energy resources like wind and solar.

Yes, cost-effective. The economics of wind and solar have changed significantly since 2009, when the studies Rasmussen is citing were published. Prices for wind turbines and solar panels are plummeting. According to the latest data, utilities across the country are choosing to build renewable power plants rather than coal ones.

The time for fighting windmills has passed; it is time for our policy makers to face reality and accept renewable energy as part of Utah's energy future.

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