SALT LAKE CITY — A representative of the country's largest independent solar power plant developer encouraged a Utah legislative committee on Wednesday to consider launching an energy task force to look at deregulating the power industry in the state.
R. Steve Creamer, executive chairman of sPower and the former CEO of EnergySolutions, also warned the Public Utilities, Energy and Technology Interim Committee that failing to make changes to boost the state's portfolio of utility-scale renewable power generation would have dire economic consequences. That could include, Creamer said, losing out on luring big tech companies that are requiring renewable power access at expansion locations
"Happy to take you to a meeting and have them tell you," Creamer said."Walmart, Microsoft, Amazon 'We won’t come to your state unless we can buy green power.' It’s what they want to do."
Rocky Mountain Power was also targeted by sPower in an information packet presented to legislators stating that "more projects could be built, but RMP is blocking developers." It goes on to cite examples of how the utility is hindering new renewable development by preventing access to transmission lines, refusing to operate the grid in a cost-effective manner and reducing terms of power purchase agreements.
Jon Cox, Rocky Mountain Power's vice president for government affairs, warned that the state should exercise caution when considering investments in renewables. He cited the current glut of green power generated in California that at times forces the state into "negative pricing" situations that result in having to pay customers to take the power off their hands.
"I would warn the state of Utah about following California's lead in following these energy proposals," Cox said. "Do we want to build significant amount of new capacity at great cost in a market that’s rapidly changing?"
Cox also rebutted sPowers claims about transmission lines, citing limited carrying capacity issues for the lines the company controls.
"One thing we cannot repeal is the law of physics," Cox said. "Congestion traffic is real. We’re not trying to stall development."
Bill Green, CEO of MIC Renewable Energy Holdings also presented to the committee, via phone, and concurred with Creamer, at least as far as potential negative economic impacts and a need for regulatory change are concerned. He also added that the decision-making process should consider the aggressively pro-renewable energy stances taken by neighboring states.
"I think for the state of Utah ... this is the single greatest economic development opportunity the state has ever had in your lifetimes," Green said. "You are in competition, make no mistake about it."
Green sounded a more conciliatory tone than Creamer, however, when speaking about what role Rocky Mountain Power would best play in creating more renewable power generation in the state.
"I actually see it differently in Utah at the moment," Green said. "There’s an opportunity to work with the utility, not frame it as 'us versus them.'"
Green, Creamer and Cox did find some space for agreement on the issue that has kept renewable energy sources like solar and wind power from becoming reliable, around the clock "base load" providers — battery-based power storage. While the cost and efficiency of battery backup to store power when its windy or sunny to provide power when its dark and still has improved dramatically in the past few years, the technology has not progressed to where it needs to be just yet.
The cost of generating renewable energy has, however, crossed a threshold now falling into the 3 cents per kilowatt/hour range, according to Creamer, which is competitive with the cost of electricity generated by coal and gas sources.
HEAL Utah's senior policy associate Michael Shea, who was present at the meeting, said that this new fiscal reality was something Rocky Mountain Power needed to acknowledge when deciding its role in the state's energy generation future.
"For the first time, the utility is having to deal with the fact that renewables are cheaper than traditional fossil fuels," Shea said. "They need to decide whether they want to continue to live in the past or do business with companies like sPower, which represent the future."
Currently, about 12 percent of the electricity generated in Utah comes from renewable sources.