Somewhat more than 3.2 million people live in Utah — spread out across approximately 82,000 square miles of desert, forest, alpine regions, and surprisingly, a bit of wetlands. Most of the state is desert, with very hot days and very cold nights; about 25% of Utah is temperate forest with both deciduous and coniferous trees, and less than 1% of Utah is a wetland with about 75% of those wetlands located near the Great Salt Lake. On land 10,000 feet above sea level lies the alpine region with short, hardy plants that can survive high wind speeds and extreme cold. Utah mountain peaks, on average, are the tallest in the US with an average elevation — in each of Utah’s counties — 11,222 feet higher than any other state.
Utah has not been spared the effects of climate change. Warming about 2°F in the last century climate change is diminishing the flow of water in Utah’s rivers and escalating the frequency and intensity of wildfires.
As the state warms, less precipitation falls as snow, and more snow melts during the winter months. The Utah snowpack has been shrinking since the 1950s, shortening the season for skiing and other forms of winter tourism and recreation as well as altering the way snow melts into the Green and Colorado rivers. As the amount of water from the heat is diminished, the need for it, because of the heat, increases. This has many negative effects on the ecosystems and human populations depending on the rivers.
Those rising temperatures are particularly harmful to agriculture in the state, which uses 80% of its water. In addition to reducing the amount of water flow available through its rivers, the heat increases the amount of water evaporating from the soil, making it harder to irrigate fields and keep livestock. Heat also threatens the health of cows, causing them to eat less, grow more slowly, and produce less milk.
Higher temperatures and resulting drought are also likely to increase the severity, frequency, and extent of wildfires. As of Oct. 4, 2020, with the third driest spring in its history and extreme and exceptional drought across the state, Utah has seen 294,930 acres burned. Along with burning down towns and ecosystems, wildfire smoke can reduce air quality and increase medical visits for chest pains, respiratory problems, and heart problems.
One of the reddest states in the nation, in 2019 Utah created a long-term comprehensive plan to address climate change. At the request of the state legislature, the Kem C.Gardner Policy Institute produced the “Utah Roadmap: Positive Solutions to Climate and Air Quality” with the intention of reducing greenhouse gas emissions affecting both the local air quality and the global climate. The plan includes cutting CO2 emissions statewide 25% below 2005 levels by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 80% by 2050. It focuses on a market-based approach to combating climate change, dealing with transportation, infrastructure, housing options, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles. The plan gives special attention to Utahns who live in rural areas. This past October, 2020 more than 100 mayors (including Logan’s Mayor Daines and Salt Lake City’s Mayor Wilson), business, and academic leaders from throughout the state signed Utah’s first Climate and Clean Air Compact committing their support of the Roadmap.
This is a huge shift from the Utah of just a few years ago, when its legislature passed a resolution urging the EPA to “cease its carbon dioxide reduction policies, programs, and regulations until climate data and global warming science are substantiated.” Utah’s change of heart and business-friendly approach have caused it to rise as a model for other red states on the issue of climate change.
Although, as of 2018, just 11% of Utah’s energy comes from renewable resources, the state holds huge potential for green power generation, especially solar power generation. As Elon Musk said back in 2015, “you could take a corner of Utah and Nevada and power the entire United States with solar power.”
So, although not exactly a green state, it is moving in the right direction. Around two-thirds of Utah’s electricity comes from coal-fired power plants, down from 81% in 2013 with most of the rest of its energy coming from natural gas. In 2018, it was the 12th-largest coal producing state in the US, the lowest level in 33 years and down by almost half from production a decade earlier. Utah does still account for about 1 in every 100 barrels of crude oil produced in the United States, and 1 of every 9 barrels produced in the Rocky Mountain states. Utah also has the nation’s only operating uranium ore mill, which processes uranium ore from mines in other states, as there has been no active uranium mine production in Utah since late 2012.
The majority of energy consumption in Utah comes from the transportation sector, which accounts for almost one-third of the state’s total, followed closely by the industrial sector at about one-fourth. The residential sector and the commercial sector each account for about one-fifth of the state’s energy consumption, mostly due to energy spent on warming and cooling homes, responding to the hugely varying desert temperatures. Energy consumption per capita in Utah is, nonetheless, below the national average and lower than two-thirds of the states.
CREDIT: THE NATURAL PROGRESSIVE