Utah Clean Energy
Success Is in the Air
It’s hard to imagine what the settlers saw when they gazed upon what is now the Salt Lake valley. One thing is certain; The air was much cleaner than it is now. With the addition of cars, crowds and carbon monoxide, dense smog often veils the Wasatch Front, especially in the winter. The beautiful mountains that draw so many people to Utah can’t even be seen on some days.
That’s something Sarah Wright is addressing. She’s the founder and executive director of Utah Clean Energy, established in 2001.
“The biggest challenge we often face is that most people don’t think about what is behind the switch when they’re using energy,” Wright says. “Reducing our energy waste and switching to clean sources of energy are vital to improving air quality.”
Clearing the Air
Wright is a geologist. She’s fond of research and policy and uses both to improve air quality in the Beehive State as a regular participant in legislative and utility issues. When she started Utah Clean Energy, her goal was to create an organization focused on solutions that weren’t yet examined.
“As I studied and learned more about climate change, I realized there wasn’t a group in Utah pushing for more efficient energy,” Wright says. “Our legislature and policymakers hadn’t really thought about renewable energy or energy efficiency. The biggest barrier was lack of understanding of clean energy solutions.”
Utah Clean Energy advanced awareness while also growing its team from one volunteer in 2001 to a staff of 13 today. The organization pushes for cleaner, more efficient energy sources on a grand scale while also zeroing in on improvements for households.
“Today, Utah Clean Energy serves as a voice and expert on clean energy in Utah,” Wright says.
The group’s biggest gains are in the solar industry. Solar power didn’t have traction a decade ago. That changed in 2013 when large-scale solar garnered fair market price as a power grid supplier, and the cost of installing rooftop solar panels became increasingly affordable. The intersection of those two factors turned Utah into one of the top 10 states in the nation for solar development — a major feat in a state that still relies on coal for 70% of its net electricity generation.
“The economics of coal plants are changing dramatically,” Wright says. “Renewables are now cost competitive with coal, enabling a transition to clean energy sources including geothermal, wind and solar power.”
Coal plants are located in rural areas. Transitioning those towns away from coal without tanking local economies is a priority. Improving household power consumption is also a priority. For example, Utah Clean Energy offers up to 15 free LED light bulbs per household in low-income areas. Exchanging traditional bulbs for LEDs saves families an average of $60-$90 a year. That’s significant in a home where much of the family’s monthly income is dedicated to keeping the place warm and lit.
“What we do makes a profound difference,” Wright says. “I feel we’re close to making big transitions while creating jobs and cleaner air.”