November 1, 2011

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Catching Sunshine

The Elusive Promise of Renewable Energy

Jeff Vanek

November 1, 2011

For solar, particularly, the emphasis has been on single-building systems—on residential homes, for example—rather than large utility projects.

However, St. George is home to a solar photovoltaic project for a small community of users. SunSmart allows residents to purchase solar power generated from a community-based project. The SunSmart project is a joint effort between the City of St. George Energy Services Department, which is a municipal utility, and Dixie Escalante Electric, an electric cooperative serving Southern Utah. The facility has a capacity of 250 kilowatts, and there are a total of 26 participants so far, according to Rene Fleming, the conservation coordinator at SunSmart.

The state’s largest ground-based stationary solar array system is in place at Hill Air Force Base. According to Harry Briesmaster, the 75th Civil Engineering Group director, there are 1,170 photovoltaic solar panels installed on five structures with a total energy generating capacity of 230 kilowatts—enough to power 25 homes. The energy produced is fed directly into the base’s grid system, offsetting the energy it uses from traditional sources.

In addition to Milford Wind, there is another utility-scale wind project in the state. Wasatch Wind is the developer of the Spanish Fork Wind Farm project located at the mouth of the Spanish Fork Canyon. It was the state’s first commercial wind power development and has nine wind turbines and a generating capacity of almost 19 megawatts of power, which is sold to Rocky Mountain Power.

Powering the Community

Rocky Mountain Power is finding ways to support renewable energy and give consumers a greater range of options. The company’s Blue Sky renewable energy program offers funds for the building of community-based renewable energy projects in Utah, Wyoming and Idaho. The funds must be applied for, and grants of a few thousand dollars to more substantial amounts are available depending on the project. According to the company’s website, “The funds support the installation of community-based, non-residential renewable energy projects in the company’s service area to support the growth of renewable energy in local communities.”

Of the 64 projects listed as funded last year, 50 of them were for renewable energy projects in Utah. Most of the projects were related to solar energy. For example, Blue Sky funds were used to install photovoltaic cells on the roof of the Clark Planetarium in downtown Salt Lake City. There were also solar panels installed on the Grand County Public Library and at the Springdale Wastewater Treatment Facility.

A few of the projects were combination wind and solar projects, such as the Friends of Animals Utah building project in Summit County. A smaller number of Blue Sky projects have been wind or hydro-electric related. The City of Ogden for example, has a hydro project under construction at the mouth of the Ogden Canyon, just below Pine View Reservoir.

Even though Utah is one of the driest states in the nation, hydroelectrically generated power is currently one of the biggest sources of renewable power in the state. Even so, it is not a source of electrical generation that is expected to grow, given that water is a much more limited resource in Utah than in other parts of the country.

There are many small-scale hydro projects throughout the state that have a generating capacity of anywhere from less than one megawatt of power to more than 50 megawatts of power. A couple of the larger projects include the Jordanelle Dam in Wasatch County, which has a generating capacity of 12 megawatts of power, and Flaming Gorge Dam in Daggett County. That dam has three generators, each having slightly more than 50 megawatts of power generation capacity.

Geothermal power is another large slice of Utah’s renewable energy pie. Unlike wind or solar, geothermal energy is considered a good base load source, meaning it is a constant source of power. Utah has been generating electrical power from geothermal sources near Blundell since 1984—at the time, the nation’s first geothermal electric generating plant outside of California. Owned by PacificCorp, the Blundell geothermal plant has a generating capacity of 34 megawatts of power and supplies electricity to six Western states.

A second geothermal plant, owned by Raser Technologies, near Beaver, has a power generation capacity of 10 megawatts. Other projects are in various stages of development in the state.

Besides these commercial-scale projects, geothermal energy can be used to heat buildings. A couple of examples of this include two commercial nursery operations in Iron County: Castle Valley Greenhouses and Milgro Newcastle. Both nurseries use naturally occurring hot water from the earth to heat their greenhouse complexes. Several resorts in the state also use geothermal energy as a source of heating for buildings and swimming pools. The Utah Department of Corrections uses geothermal energy for space and domestic water uses in the Utah State Prison in Salt Lake County.

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