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How much money does renewable energy make for rural Utah’s economy? It’s more than you’d think

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A Colorado-based conservative organization promoting the West says the political “right” needs to own environmental problems, identify the solutions and better promote how real change is transforming the energy economy.

© Ravell Call, Deseret News Windmills turn at the mouth of Spanish Fork Canyon on Tuesday, April 26, 2016. A Colorado-based conservative organization promoting the West says the political “right” needs to own environmental problems, identify the solutions and better promote how real change is transforming the energy economy.

To that end, The Western Way released a report it commissioned that shows just how well renewable energy is catching on in Utah, contributing $5.3 billion in economic output in rural areas of the state over the last several years.

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While oil and gas remains the dominant energy sector in the Beehive state, Utah ranks No. 10 in the nation in the amount of solar generating capacity, with 1,525 megawatts installed and more to come online.

“We’ve known for some time that a dramatic change is happening with transition to new energy, but I don’t think anyone knew that it’s having a $5.3 billion economic impact in Utah,” said Senate President Stuart Adams, R-Layton. “The fact that workers in construction and maintenance has risen to over 9,000 is impressive.”

Adam was reacting to the newly released report, “The Economic Benefits of Utah’s Rural Renewable Energy Industry,” which looked at the impacts of 31 projects in 11 rural counties in Utah.

The projects in the analysis account for 2,275 megawatts of nameplate capacity from solar, wind and geothermal projects.

Utah, in fact, is third in the nation for geothermal generated energy and is a pioneer in the development of new technology that may make that natural resource more attainable around the globe via a demonstration project.

Some key takeaways the report highlights about renewable energy in Utah include:

  • $4.1 billion in construction and investment with 4,638 full-time construction jobs.
  • $24.6 million paid in annual property taxes to local governments.
  • $6.3 million in annual lease payments to ranchers, farmers and other landowners.

The numbers are derived from those 31 projects under a time frame of 2007 to 2023, including five new ones that are in development or under construction.

Utah is echoing a pace being set on a national scale and globally as well.

The International Energy Administration, with 30 member countries, pointed out that in 2020, the addition of renewable energy increased 45% across the globe to almost 280 gigawatts, the highest year-on-year increase since 1999.

It added that high-capacity additions have become the “new normal” in projects in 2021 and scheduled to come online next year, accounting for a whopping 90% of new power capacity across the globe.

Utah’s high elevation and abundance of sunshine makes it an ideal location for solar development, with electrical generation from all facilities accounting for 58% of the state’s renewable generation. It sits at 30 times greater now than it did just six years ago.

Rep. Steve Handy, R-Layton, a co-chairman of the Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus, became acquainted with The Western Way via consulting and said the report drives home the economic benefits Utah is reaping from the rapid development of renewable energy.

“When it comes to wind, solar and geothermal, money and markets are flowing together in an impressive and significant way, and the positive impact of these projects in Utah is going to continue at breakneck speed,” he said.

That rapid deployment of renewable energy has caused some concern over the need for “smart” development because of the amount of land that is required and what happens to the materials at their end of life.

The World Bank projects an astronomical need for rare earth minerals and other materials to support renewable energy and said effective regulations need to be in place to promote prudent environmental stewardship.

In January under the Trump administration, the U.S Environmental Protection Agency warned of the extreme amount of global waste generated by solar farms reaching their end of life, but that briefing paper was subsequently pulled by President Joe Biden’s administration after he took office amid calls that it was inaccurate.

As development of clean energy takes off in rural Utah, regulators that include state agencies and county commissioners are ensuring stewardship agreements are in place to safeguard landscapes.

This new report, said one expert, underscores the “rural renaissance” that is happening in Utah in terms of renewable energy’s investment and monetary impacts on local jobs and tax revenues.

“This report should give state, county and city policymakers the assurance that local projects will benefit their neighbors and communities,” said Edwin Stafford, a professor of marketing at Utah State University’s Jon M. Huntsman School of Business.

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