Salt Lake City Commits to Renewable Energy

Mayor announces climate resolution to lower greenhouse gas emissions and operate on renewable energy

Temperatures in Salt Lake City this summer have been steamy. June’s average hit 71 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the city is on pace to hit 2013’s record hot summer.

In spite of the heat, July 13th arrived with refreshing news for Salt Lake City. Democratic Mayor Jakie Biskupksi announced a landmark resolution committing the city to an 80-percent reduction on community-wide greenhouse gas emissions by 2040 (based on 2009 levels) and a goal to transition the city to 100-percent renewable energy sources by 2032.

Good news, skiers. Salt Lake City announced a resolution to clean up it's air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. That's a step in favor of snow. PHOTO: Jay Dash
Good news, skiers. Salt Lake City announced a resolution to clean up its air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. That’s a step in favor of snow. Carlo Traverelli agrees. PHOTO: Jay Dash

“A few days of records, especially in a rapidly growing urban area, is not necessarily an indication of climate change,” says Dr. Jim Steenburgh, University of Utah Atmospheric Sciences professor and author of the book, “Secrets to the Greatest Snow on Earth,” and a well-known blog, Wasatch Weather Weenies. “That being said, it is very clear that the climate of Salt Lake City, Utah, and Western North America is warming and that the frequency, duration, and intensity of warm spells is increasing…We are no longer living in the climate experienced by the Mormon pioneers, our grandparents, or, for many of us who are bit longer in the tooth, our parents.”

The resolution, called Climate Positive SLC, places the city in high-ranking company with international leaders in climate policy, including Oslo, Norway; London, England; Boulder, Colorado; and Washington D.C. Salt Lake’s commitment focuses on two goals: a shift to renewable energy and diminishing the city’s climate footprint. To ensure the resolution’s long-term goals are met, the mayor outlined benchmarks with an aggressive timeline: Municipal operations must source half of their electricity from renewable resources in four years and community-wide greenhouse gas emissions must be cut in half by 2030.

To reach those goals, the city will work with suppliers like Rocky Mountain Power and their new solar farm, says Vicki Bennett, the city’s sustainability director. Additional programs to eliminate energy waste, update transportation solutions, grow community support, and build relationships with other alternative energy suppliers will be outlined in an upcoming plan, to be published next year.

Welcome to Smog Lake City, where air pollution is a severe environmental concern. PHOTO: Andrey Zharkikh
Welcome to Smog Lake City, where air pollution is a severe environmental concern. PHOTO: Andrey Zharkikh

“[This] is a huge step in the right direction, and it makes me proud to be from Salt Lake City,” says Caroline Gleich, a local professional skier who, as an ambassador for Protect Our Winters, has been vocal about Utah’s need to curb its emissions. “I hope it will put pressure on our elected officials at the state level to take meaningful action, not just for climate change, but to keep a healthy living environment.”

Air quality has been a big concern for Salt Lake residents and the state of Utah. A veil of smog caused by particulate matter pollution covers the city during the winter months. With an ever-growing population on track to hit 4 million by 2032, the city must drive more electric vehicles and move away from coal and natural gas, says Dr. Kerry Kelly, vice chair on the state’s Air Quality Board. “Using less fuel for heating and transport will lead to both winter-time and summer-time air quality,” says Kelly.

According to Salt Lake’s 2009 community greenhouse gas inventory, electricity accounts for more than half of Salt Lake’s community-wide carbon footprint. Even though Salt Lake City is prioritizing renewable energy, the transition from fossil fuels to renewables remains an uphill battle, especially at the state level, which leans in favor of oil and gas development.

Last January, at the Salt Lake City public library, citizens and environmentalists fought over the coal production soot and nitric oxide emissions looming over Canyonlands, Arches, and Zion national parks, which also travels eastward toward Colorado. “That was a tough day,” says Gleich, who attended the rally. “It made me realize how incredibly well-organized the natural resource extraction industry is. Not only are they showing up to every meeting, but their PR firms are doing a heck of a job convincing the world that without mining, humans cannot create new technology.” The public comment meeting had Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality and coal miners—who were bussed from the mines—pitted against citizens and environmentalists. In the end, the EPA enacted its plan, delivering a 76 percent reduction in haze-causing and harmful nitrogen oxide pollution.

“We aren’t as concerned with small changes, we will be taking transformative actions to meet our goals,” says Bennett. “We are beyond small-scale energy efficiency goals. We will be changing the source of energy to make a difference.”