Deseret Morning News graphic

By enormous margins, Utahns want alternative fuels developed in a fight against global warming. Their support even extends to the construction of nuclear power plants.

Soaring concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane and other gases are caused by power plant emissions, vehicle exhaust and the destruction of forests that otherwise would convert carbon dioxide to oxygen.

Mankind's carbon footprint stretches from airliners streaking contrails across the sky to pig farms wafting up methane.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere amounted to 280 parts per million in pre-industrial times. Now the gas is at about 375 ppm, up by a third.

The dramatically higher CO2 concentration is suspected of locking in more of the sun's warmth, causing a gradual worldwide heating. When glaciers melt, polar bears drown and deserts grow, demands for action reach a crescendo.

A minority opinion is that humans are not the main reason for global warming or they are, indeed, blameless. This argument attributes climate change to long-term natural cycles.

Lawmakers' concerns

But according to Utah's state energy adviser, Dianne Nielson, regardless of the cause, people can be part of the solution.

During a meeting of the Legislature's Public Utilities and Technology Interim Committee this week, Rep. Michael E. Noel, R-Kanab, asked Nielson what is meant by greenhouse gases. Methane and other gases, called carbon-dioxide equivalents, she replied.

In coal-fired power plants, she added, a principal emission is carbon dioxide.

This colorless and odorless gas resists attempts to capture it in large-scale generating plants. Methods to reduce emissions range from using alternative fuels to pumping carbon dioxide underground to placing such a high "carbon tax" on fossil fuels that people are forced to use alternatives such as wind-driven generators and nuclear power.

Noel asked her if one has to "buy into the theory" that global warming is human-caused to support an agenda to limit emissions.

"I don't think that's necessarily true," Nielson replied. "We need to be in the process of controlling these emissions" to effect climate change. Reducing greenhouse gases "will make a difference in terms of climate change," she said.

Nielson added that developing diverse energy sources also will help industry and allow Utah to "be able to continue to be a part of the economy in the West.... If we are to compete, this is an important issue to deal with."

One alternative that has been gaining ground rapidly is the use of fuels made from biological material, as opposed to fossil fuels. Ethanol and other fuel made from organic material are already in use.

During the interim committee meeting, Rep. Steve Mascaro, R-West Jordan, asked Nielson if agricultural bio-mass fuel production is part of the energy-diversity discussion.

"It is," she said, "and it has been in terms of generation of fuels from corn, which is a significant component of the ethanol production." Also, she said, animal waste could be used to generate fuel. She said the waste component may be more useful in this state because of the great number of livestock here.

What Utahns think

Utahns overwhelmingly agree with Nielson about the importance of developing new fuel sources, according to a Deseret Morning News-KSL TV survey, carried out by Dan Jones & Associates June 26 to 28. With 410 people interviewed statewide, the poll has a possible error rate of plus or minus 5 percent.

Asked whether they thought it's a good idea to make major changes in sources, such as switching to renewable energy, 46 percent said it was definitely good and 39 percent said it was probably good, for a combined total of 85 percent positive. "Probably bad" was the answer of 4 percent, and "definitely bad" accounted for 2 percent, meaning 6 percent were opposed. (Three percent said it "depends," and 6 percent did not know.)

To say there's a groundswell of enthusiasm for non-traditional energy is an understatement. Responses were not exclusive, with residents expressing approval or disapproval of six energy sources.

Those surveyed were asked if they favor government investment and incentives to encourage development of various ways to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Listed in order of their popularity with Utahns, these are:

• The greatest support goes to energy efficiency and conservation, with 94 percent of those surveyed saying they would definitely or probably support this option. Those opposed amount to only 3 percent, with the remaining 3 percent uncertain.

• Solar power seems like a solid investment to 92 percent, with most (64 percent of the total) saying they definitely support developments in this field and 28 percent agreeing that government probably should support it. Opposed were 4 percent.

• Wind power incentives are favored by 90 percent, with 7 percent opposed.

• Geothermal power, using the heat inside Earth to generate power, gained the support of 80 percent: 45 percent definitely supporting providing incentives to improve this option, 35 percent saying they probably would. Those opposed to government investment in geothermal energy were 4 percent.

• Support of ethanol and biofuels to power vehicles was approved by 74 percent, but in this case those saying they "probably support" it outnumber the "definitely support." The breakdown is 35 percent think the government definitely should help the budding industry, 39 percent "probably," with 8 percent probably opposed and 8 percent definitely opposed.

• Nuclear power has the least support, but here too the number of people favoring it outnumber those against by a hefty majority. Altogether, 63 percent of Utahns polled like the idea of government investment and incentives for nuclear power while 29 percent oppose it. In this category, too, those saying "definitely" were outnumbered by those giving "probably" answers, 30 percent to 33 percent.

Finally, Utahns were grilled on their support for the call by Gov. Jon M. Huntsman Jr. to search for alternative fuels and/or energy technology, although the state is a major coal producer.

Sixty percent said they strongly agree with Huntsman; adding the 30 percent who somewhat agree, the positive reaction is 90 percent. Those disagreeing were 6 percent, evenly split between "somewhat" and "strongly opposed."

Tomorrow: Are Utahns willing to pay the price to reduce carbon emissions?