The site of this year’s Solar Power International may not be the first state you think of when it comes to solar powerhouses, but the Beehive State has some serious sun credentials.
Utah boasts about 1,661 MW of solar installed and came in 10th place on SEIA’s national solar rankings in 2019, up from 27th the year before. The state gets 6.4% of its energy from solar.
This past summer, the state capital sped up its goal to reach 100% renewable energy by two years. Salt Lake City now aims to be carbon-free by 2030 instead of 2032, with all city buildings being powered by 100% renewable energy by 2020.
“Utah is an up-and-coming market, it’s got a great solar resource, it’s got great conference resources and we just thought it’s a chance to extend our brand into a lesser-known market,” said Sean Gallagher, VP of state affairs for SEIA. “We can demonstrate to policymakers and the business structure in the state that this industry can be really a powerful driver of economic growth.”
Utah is home to one of the largest residential solar installers in the country, Vivint Solar. Erica Dahl, VP of public policy and government affairs for Vivint, said the company’s headquarters is near the new “Silicon Slopes” technology corridor in Lehi. Adobe’s headquarters is across the street from Vivint, and Ancestry is based in nearby Provo.
“This is being termed really the ‘innovation hub’ of Utah and so to have a solar company right in the middle of that, helping to lead out, I think is indicative of the perception that there are exciting things happening in solar both in front of and behind the meter,” Dahl said.
Dahl works full-time on government affairs for Vivint across the country, but she lives in Utah and works out of Vivint’s headquarters. Her biggest project in the state currently is getting a new version of Senate Bill 111 passed in the next legislative session. The bill to create a grant program for energy storage research passed in its first legislative session but then was cut at the last minute from the state budget. Dahl said the original sponsor is willing to support the bill again during the next session.
“[Storage] is the next frontier, and to have a state like Utah be interested and have our policymakers pass that out of their state legislature on the first introduction is exciting,” she said. “So, we’re hopeful for a positive funding outcome in the 2020 session.”
Vivint Solar sees SPI as a chance to show policymakers that supporting solar has many benefits for the state.
“Governor Herbert and [executive director of the governor’s office of energy development] Dr. Nelson have always said that they support an above-all energy strategy in the state of Utah and I think that SPI is a perfect forum to delve into what renewables can bring to that statement,” Dahl said. “We have a very rich history with some other energy industries and so our attitude is not, ‘We’re trying to replace,’ it’s, ‘We’re another option.'”
Vivint is one of the few Utah solar companies with the resources to devote a full-time employee to government affairs, but Dahl said she’s been working to build more industry support. One of her first efforts when she got the job four years ago was to resurrect the state’s solar energy advocacy group, the Utah Solar Energy Association, where she’s now vice chair of the board of directors.
The trade organization is just as appreciative of the visibility the show will bring to Utah’s solar market. USEA president Ryan Evans said the state’s net metering structure helps many residents go solar, but there’s untapped potential for Utah to also become a significant exporter of solar energy if some transmission and interconnection challenges can be solved.
“Having Solar Power International coming to Utah is an amazing opportunity for the Utah solar industry. It is an opportunity to show off Utah companies and Utah solar innovations and an opportunity to show policymakers in our state how big of an industry solar truly is,” Evans said.
Utah solar installer ION Solar proudly welcomes the big show to its home state. Dave Rasmussen, president of ION, said he’s glad to see top solar nonprofit organizations like SEIA and SEPA take notice of Utah’s solar growth and importance in the national solar market.
“Utah is investing in solar — we are working hard to push the development of renewable energy even further. The North American Smart Energy Week is a great chance for people to connect, network and work together to advance the solar energy industry,” Rasmussen said.