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If We Build It: Feds Say Solar Development Potential Huge in Utah

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Last week the U.S. Departments of Interior and Energy announced 3 public land sites in Utah that could be used for large-scale solar energy projects, but that doesn't necessarily mean there will be any takers on development.

Milford Flats and the Escalante and Wah Wah Valleys have long been considered good potential areas for solar power, but Jim Byrne with the Western Grid Group says the lack of transmission capability and the uncertainty of whether customers would be willing to help pay to built it could be a problem for solar development in the state:

"So, there's kind of a 'chicken or the egg' problem -- the renewable developer would like to have transmission already there and available. That doesn't exist by and large, and that tends to make it more difficult to develop these projects."

Byrne says there have been several transmission-line proposals through or near southwestern Utah, but they've had a hard time finding backers, likely because of the expense.

Now, it's up to states to entice those developers. Sara Baldwin with Utah Clean Energy says solar technology has become less expensive and utilities are taking it more seriously. But it has also become competitive, and some states are doing more than Utah to encourage development:

"We've heard whisperings of several developers very interested in Utah's tremendous solar resource -- and we're also situated in a space that can serve markets outside of Utah. But the flip side to that is, those states also have solar resources."

Baldwin says the potential for jobs in rural Utah might pique some interest in solar projects. The federal report says at each of the 3 Solar Energy Zones, a large development would employ well over 2,000 people during construction and create more than 200 permanent jobs.