SALT LAKE CITY — A trio of rural county commissioners is asking Gov. Gary Herbert to exercise his gubernatorial muscle to stop a $3.5 billion proposal to develop green energy infrastructure in Wyoming and Idaho.
The commissioners want Herbert to press Rocky Mountain Power over its "Energy Vision 2020 Initiative" and members of the Public Service Commission, who he appoints, to derail the plan in favor of directing the jobs to Utah.
"It just makes no sense to me," said Mark Whitney, chairman of the Beaver County Commission. "If (Herbert) is really that strong on his 25,000 rural jobs initiative, he better pound on the table, jump up and down, scream and everything else on the table of Rocky Mountain Power over this."
In his State of the State address in January, Herbert announced as one of his main priorities the goal of creating 25,000 jobs in rural Utah within four years. He launched the initiative last month at a rural summit in Cedar City, and officials from the governor's office have been traveling throughout the state to jumpstart the effort, including a stop in Juab County this week.
Whitney, Stan Summers, chairman of the Box Elder County Commission, and Garth "Tooter" Ogden, Sevier County Commission chairman, recently authored an opinion piece in the Desert News urging Herbert to reject the plan to export "millions of dollars and thousands of jobs to other states."
The jobs initiative, in light of the utility company's proposal, seems at odds, the piece asserted.
"That is why so many of us are puzzled to learn that our state-regulated electric utility is seeking approval to divert Utah-generated resources to benefit other states, when Utah is so perfectly positioned to fully deploy that same investment and development here at home," the editorial reads.
Rocky Mountain Power submitted its proposal to the Public Service Commission in July. A hearing is set for Sept. 19 before the commission on preliminary details of the project, including construction of a 140-mile segment of a transmission line through Wyoming and adding 1,100 megawatts of wind power.
The governor's office did not respond directly to the opinion piece authored by the commissioners, but said in a statement that the "request is currently under review."
"As we proceed, we will work with utility regulators to understand the issues at hand and determine what is in the public interest for Utahns,” said Laura Nielson, the governor's energy policy adviser.
Whitney said he's baffled that the proposal has made it this far, bypassing critical employee needs in Utah's rural communities.
"It makes no sense to me. With all due respect to the governor, how did this get past him? How did this get past the Governor's Office of Economic Development and everyone else? There has to be a component I am missing," he said.
Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jon Cox said the projects proposed for Idaho and Wyoming have been on the table for years, noting that the Gateway West transmission line is going on 10 years in the federal permitting process.
"We believe a more diverse energy portfolio is a stronger energy portfolio," Cox said.
Rocky Mountain Power, he added, has invested $2.5 billion in energy development in Utah since 2010 — an investment that does not include its contracts to purchase solar energy from plants owned by other companies.
"That is a significant amount of investment in Utah, primarily in southern Utah, which has certainly led to jobs, particularly in Beaver County," Cox said.
The recent proliferation of solar farms — the state added 1,200 megawatts in 2016 — is causing congestion on transmission lines south of Mona, he said.
"We have seen so much solar added south of Utah County that the congestion issue is an issue throughout much of the area," Cox said.
Rocky Mountain Power has plans for a Gateway South transmission line in that area, he added, but the permitting and federal review process will take time.
In its announcement of the proposal, which is under review in the three impacted states, Rocky Mountain Power touted the economic benefits of the construction phase, including the creation of up to 1,600 jobs in Wyoming and the generation of $120 million in tax revenue.
Whitney said he and the other commissioners who authored the opinion piece believe the utility company — and Herbert — need to pursue green energy development that puts Utah residents to work.
"We have counties that truly need economic development and jobs," he said.