Guest opinion: The solar supply chain is working for Utah and the West

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Steve Handy

Utah is one of the fastest growing states in the country, with one of the best economies, and all that success takes energy. So which new energy sources are being added to the Utah power grid to handle all that growth?

Coal? Natural gas? Wind? Nope — it’s solar.

Since 2015, about 93% of the electric generating capacity added to grid in Utah has been solar, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).

That may come as a surprise, given all the political stereotypes and divisive rhetoric about different energy sources. Utah is a reliably red state and Republicans hate every energy source besides fossil fuels — at least that’s what some in the national media would have us believe.

Well, here’s some breaking news: Those divisive voices in the national media are wrong.

Solar energy is surging in Utah because it makes good business sense. Yes, the cost of electricity from solar panels used to be prohibitively expensive, but starting in the late 2000s, that started to change in a big way.

The unsubsidized cost of solar-powered electricity has fallen roughly 90% since 2009, making it competitive with electricity from existing power plants that burn coal or natural gas. Put another way, what used to be one of the most expensive sources of electricity is now one of the cheapest.

The falling cost of solar power has spurred a remarkable expansion here in Utah and across the Mountain West.

In 2009, the amount of solar power in Utah was too small for the EIA to measure. But in 2021, solar panels accounted for more than 8% of all the electricity generated in our state, according to EIA data. In fact, across the eight Mountain states, only Nevada gets a higher percentage of its electricity from solar, at almost 16%.

Those solar panels can now be found on the rooftops of homes and businesses and in large-scale solar arrays built by power companies.

But to provide a better sense of how quickly the Western solar industry has grown, consider the following: Today, the states of Utah, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming are generating roughly 100 times more electricity from solar than they did just over a decade ago, according to EIA data.

The rapid growth of solar energy in Utah has been especially positive for the rural communities of our state, which play host to almost two dozen large-scale solar arrays, according to a 2021 report from The Western Way, a nonprofit that seeks conservative solutions to environmental challenges.

The same report found more than $5 billion in construction and other investment activity in Utah tied to solar and other renewables since the late 2000s, not to mention more than 9,000 jobs.

But the benefits don’t end with the installation of solar panels and the low-cost, carbon-free electricity they send to the power grid. The expansion of solar and other renewable energy technologies across the U.S. is also spurring new investment in the mining industry of Utah and other Western states.

In May, the operators of the Kennecott copper mine outside Salt Lake City started producing a new mineral — tellurium — at the same location. Tellurium is about eight times rarer than gold and was one of 35 minerals deemed critical to the economic and national security of our country by the Trump administration in 2018.

In the past, the tellurium found in copper-bearing ores at the Kennecott mine was discarded as waste. But as more solar panels are manufactured in the U.S., it’s now economical for the owner of Kennecott mine — Rio Tinto — to refine and sell the tellurium to domestic customers.

Tellurium from the Kennecott mine will be used to build solar panels in Ohio, which is one of the largest centers of solar manufacturing outside of China.

This obviously helps Utah’s mining sector, but the strategic value of producing more energy technologies in the U.S. was also noted by Gov. Spencer Cox at the official opening of the tellurium production line.

“I think what we’re doing today is just as important as the F-35 (stealth fighter jets) at Hill Air Force Base for national security,” he said.

Here in Utah and across the West, the entire solar supply chain is contributing positively to our economy, our tax base, the strength of our communities and the strength of our country. Given all that’s been accomplished in just over a decade, I can’t wait to see what the next 10 years will bring.

Steve Handy is a resident of Layton and is concluding 12 years in the Utah House of Representatives. Professionally, he owns a marketing communications firm and is the Utah state director for The Western Way, an organization focused on market-competitive solutions to environmental and conservation challenges.


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Author: systems