Over the two days, we rode a bus and donned hardhats to visit and learn from a developer of a large-scale solar project, a coal-fired power plant, two geothermal plants from different decades, a century-old hydroelectric plant, an energy and gas storage facility just being launched, a large wind farm and a renewable energy fair at a local high school complete with a very cool inter-school endurance race of student-built electric cars.
It's impossible for me to itemize everything I learned, let alone catalog the onslaught of impressions and emotions from this trip through the spectacularly beautiful natural formations of southern Utah. But I do want to share these 11 major take-aways about clean energy:
1. Listen to the rural communities
Industrial-scale renewable energy is all about rural communities. Large solar and wind farms are not going to show up in suburban America. The conversation is not complete if these communities are not treated as the critical partners and stakeholders that they are.
2. Jobs, jobs, jobs
Renewable energy production really is less labor-intensive than more traditional sources. On the one hand, that means some business creativity is needed in the local communities to create new employment opportunities as part of the transition to clean energy.
3. Well, no, maybe not always jobs after all
On the other hand, a representative of the Beaver County Commissioners office in Utah told us that they have had to re-think their idea that "economic development" should be measured solely by job creation. In fact, the renewable energy sector is capital-intensive and has brought in substantial tax revenue without a commensurate increase in demand for services. They credit their "5 within 50" (five renewable energy plants within a 50-mile radius: solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric and biogas) with their ability to weather the last recession essentially unscathed. One project alone is bringing $5 million in revenue — a huge benefit for a quite sparsely populated county.
Diversification brings economic and infrastructure resilience. Real progress is not from one source — it's from a mix of energy efficiency and renewables; from intermittent and steady-state sources; from production and storage; from mixing solar with wind or geothermal to maximize the productivity of the land.
5. It's a differentiator
The folks in Beaver County get it — they realize that having a community inspired by renewables, willing to partner and that has the natural resources to support development is a marketable differentiator. And they carry it right into their high schools, where they are producing graduates who are educated and excited about having skills in a growing industry. We couldn't help smiling as we heard about the "windkids" from Milford High School who have been hired to work with First Wind.
6. It's complicated
The technology is the easy part — especially given how quickly it is evolving. The economics are more complicated. And permitting, land rights, water rights — this is not for the faint of heart and definitely not for the impatient.
7. It's self-perpetuating
Just like everything in sustainability, when people experience the "wins," they want more. And as the infrastructure — land expanses, transmission lines — grows, it becomes even more attractive to keep investing.
8. California is 'leaking renewables'
We always hear about "leaking carbon," and many wonder if a single state's regulations just mean the carbon emissions will move to its neighbors. But California is buying its energy from out-of-state, and it doesn't want coal. These commitments are creating a driver for a shift in energy sources, which in turn drive availability and local demand (see "It's self-perpetuating").
9. It's cool
Do not underestimate the ability to geek out over medium enthalpy or binary cycle technology, or marvel that the apparently lazy-looking wind blades are moving at well over 100 MPH at the ends.
10. It's inspiring
It's happening. It's creating opportunity. It's nerdy. How could I not be inspired?