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In our opinion: Renewable energy

Published: Friday, March 16 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Solar panels are installed on the roof of the Leonardo in Salt Lake City. Solar is among the renewable energy sources Utah possesses in abundance.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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Only 7 percent of Utah's power generation capacity comes from renewable resources. The state has the capacity to generate a lot more from wind, solar, geothermal and other sources, but the ability to do so depends to a great deal on a number of factors.

The Utah Foundation, a research organization, published a paper this week that carefully examines those factors and the many sources of alternative energy in the state, and compares the cost and feasibility of using each against the more traditional coal, natural gas and nuclear generation sources. It's a moving target. For instance, the use of new "fracking" techniques to drill horizontally below ground has greatly increased the nation's supply of natural gas, which inevitably will bring those costs down. This method could, as the report says, "drastically alter the energy landscape of the U.S. in the future," particularly if environmental concerns can be assuaged.

But it's safe to say that the technology concerning renewable sources will improve with time, and that Utah stands to benefit as a rich source of virtually all such forms of energy. In any case, the Utah Foundation report is a valuable tool for making a dry-eyed analysis of the pros and cons of each source — the type of analysis that often is lacking in public policy debates that are dominated by interest groups on one side or the other. The report should be mandatory reading for state leaders.

Renewable energy often is touted for its low environmental impact. But each one comes with limitations and costs that can impede its use to satisfy the state's ever-broadening demand for electricity. On days when the wind doesn't blow, for instance, wind turbines are ineffective, and those days tend to come during hot summer months when the demand for power to run air conditioners is highest. Solar power has limitations on the opposite end of the temperature spectrum. It works best in the summer, not in the dark and cold winter months when demand is great for heating. Both these limitations could be overcome by the development of energy storage technologies — huge batteries capable of storing power for later use. Those don't exist as yet. Meanwhile, the costs of using both these technologies are falling.

Utah is one of a few states with geothermal power plants, but these have often performed poorly and been saddled with high amounts of debt. Biomass, on the other hand, holds a lot of promise, but the state currently produces only 9 megawatts of power from this source, which uses garbage and plants grown specifically for burning.

The report contains much more information than could be reasonably presented here. It is available at www.utahfoundation.org.

In its conclusion, the report says it is clear that "the future of energy, rather than being based on one dominant energy source, is likely to be more diverse and varied both within regions of the country, as well as among them." Renewable sources will play a role in this diversity. We hope emerging technologies will give them an increasingly larger role. That will take time, but Utah has many reasons to believe it will be a valuable source for whatever comes to dominate electricity generation in the future.

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