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Courtesy of NPR

New West Daily Roundup for July 22, 2016

Today in New West news: Utah delegates reluctantly back Trump, Mark Fiege to assume MSU’s Wallace Stegner Chair, Colstrip agrees to stop pooling toxic coal ash sludge, and the potential cost of solar in Utah.

Earlier this week, we reported that Republican delegates from Utah and Colorado had, in their own ways, rebelled against the nomination of their presumptive nominee Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio. The Utah delegates, with the support of U.S. Senator Mike Lee, led an initiative to have a roll call vote on the floor; when that initiative was struck down, the Colorado delegates left the floor of the convention in protest.

In spite of this, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, with the RNC wrapped up, Utah legislators and delegates have thrown their lot with Trump, albeit begrudgingly:

“I haven’t forgotten all of his antics. I mean Trump doesn’t have the character I want my kids looking up to in a president, but for me it comes down to Supreme Court nominations. If my only choice is Donald Trump making those nominations or Hillary Clinton, I’d rather have Donald Trump,” said state Sen. Todd Weiler, whose wife, Elizabeth, was an alternate delegate. “It is him or Hillary and this week has helped crystallize that in my mind.”

Gov. Gary Herbert, who continues to express reservations about Trump and holds out hope to have a meeting with the candidate in the near future — a scheduled meeting this week was canceled — said it was a start to making him more comfortable with the nominee.

“Some of the details and specifics are going to have to be worked on and certainly have to get some participation with Congress,” Herbert said. “This is certainly a step in the right direction.”

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she planned to vote for the Republican nominee over Clinton, but the speech Friday demonstrated for her why voters in other states seem drawn to Trump.

“The irony is what we hated about Trump, which is some of his brutal honesty and willingness to share his weaknesses and things, is what I think people love about him,” she said.

Trump’s culminating speech Friday was, at times, met with ambivalence by the Utah delegation, most of whom remained seated through almost all of the speech, giving half-hearted applause at times.

In particular, Trump’s tough talk on immigration and building a border wall appeared to fall flat, with Utah delegates sitting with arms folded and some shaking their heads.

As the speech went on, delegates appeared to lose interest and Eagle Forum President Gayle Ruzicka fell asleep mid-speech.

The Tribune notes that, whatever misgivings the Utah delegation might have, their feelings toward Trump can be summed up by the song that played to wrap-up the convention: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones.

Up in Montana, Montana State University in Bozeman is receiving a noteworthy addition to the faculty. According to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, environmental historian Mark Fiege will be assuming the Wallace Stegner Endowed Chair in Western American Studies at MSU, a permanent, fully-tenured position. The last person to hold the position was writer David Quammen, between 2005 and 2008. From the Chronicle:

“I am thrilled that we have been able to attract a scholar of Mark’s stature to MSU,” [College of Letters and Science dean Nic] Rae said. “Mark’s appointment to the Stegner Chair in tandem with our new Western Lands and Peoples Initiative will establish MSU as a center of excellence for the study of the past, present and future of the North American West.”


Rae said that endowed chairs are the highest academic position universities can bestow upon faculty. They are usually funded and sustained by permanently invested funds and attract noted scholars in their fields, he said. In addition, endowed chairs help the university boost its reputation in academic and research programs.

Rae said he invites the public to learn more about Fiege when he delivers his inaugural Stegner Lecture at 6 p.m. Monday, Oct. 3, at the Hager Auditorium in the Museum of the Rockies. The event is free and a reception preceding the lecture will begin at 5:15 p.m. in the museum lobby.

Fiege said he was “deeply honored to hold the Stegner Chair and thrilled to join the faculty at MSU.”

“I have long admired the outstanding scholars in the Department of History, Philosophy, and Religious Studies, and I couldn’t be more pleased to work with them,” Fiege said. “I look forward to sustaining the memory and legacy of Wallace Stegner, a towering figure in Western American letters.”

Fiege, who served as a visiting professor to MSU in the spring of 2015, has taught at Colorado State University in Fort Collins since 1994. He is the author of The Republic of Nature (2012)—hailed by historian William Cronon as a gamechanger in the field of environmental history—as well as Irrigated Eden: The Making of an Agricultural Landscape in the American West (1999). At CSU, Fiege founded the Public Lands history Center, as well as Parks as Portals to Learning, a collaborative research initiative founded in conjunction with National Park Service staff at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Keeping with Montana, according to the Billings Gazette, owners at the Colstrip power plant have agreed to stop pooling toxic coal ash sludge from one of its units before 2019, as part of a lawsuit recently settled between the plant and environmentalists. We previously reported that Colstrip would be closing two of its four units by 2022. From the Gazette:

An estimated 200 million gallons of contaminated water has been seeping each year for 30 years from Colstrip ash pond, rendering the groundwater undrinkable for the Colstrip community of about 2,300. The polluted ponds’ worst ingredient is “bottom ash,” a highly concentrated coal ash sludge that contains lead, arsenic, boron and other toxic chemicals that can cause liver, kidney, brain and testicle damage.

Both the power plant and the Colstrip community depend on water piped in from the Yellowstone River, 30 miles away.

The ponds will continue to collect pollution, but removing bottom ash from the cocktail will make it easier for Colstrip owners to deal with the pond seepage contaminating ground water.

“To use a bathtub analogy, you cannot stop a bathtub from overflowing until you turn off the spigot,” said Anne Hedges of the Montana Environmental Information Center, a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

The other plaintiffs were the Sierra Club, and National Wildlife Federation. The groups were represented by the environmental legal team Earthjustice.

Finally, keeping with energy news, demand for solar power in Utah has gone up, with 2016 projected to be the biggest year for the industry so far. It’s not all rosy news, however, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, who report that solar tax credits could cost the state $42 million. In addition, industry leaders are worried that residents could run afoul of “solar scammers,” looking to make “unscrupulous deals.” From the Tribune:

About 7,700 Utah residents signed up for Rocky Mountain Power’s net metering program between January and June, according to company numbers. The utility had just 3,200 net metering customers in Utah at the end of 2015.

Laura Nelson, executive director of the Governor’s Office of Energy Development (GOED), told lawmakers during an interim session last week that Utah is projected to process more than 12,000 applications for residential solar tax credits this year. Should that projection pan out, she said, it would mean more rooftop solar arrays would be installed in 2016 than in all past years combined.

While solar is on the rise nationally, rooftop arrays are especially popular in Utah. Rocky Mountain Power had 10,800 net metering customers in Utah as of the end of June, compared to 187 net metering customers in Idaho and 225 in Wyoming. According to a recently released report from the Frontier Group’s Environment America Research and Policy Center, Utah was the fifth-fastest growing state for solar installations in 2015, with 77 watts of solar installed per capita in that year alone. Nevada topped the chart for solar, with 144 watts of solar per capita.

Rooftop solar power has grown steadily in Utah since about 2012, said Jeffrey Barrett, GOED deputy director, but nothing like what Utah has seen in the past six or seven months.

“The growth curve is basically vertical right now,” he said. “It’s a remarkable time for this industry.”

Utahns are also buying larger rooftop arrays than in the past. In 2012, Barrett said, the average tax credit application involved a 3.5 kilowatt system. This year, he said, the average is closer to 6.5 kilowatts.

Low costs and advancing technology have converged to create the boom, he said.

The real question at hand, according to Auric Solar salesman Robert Olson, is how long tax credits will keep coming. Without the credits, according to Olson, solar is suddenly less affordable. And with the anticipated $42 million price tag from solar installation in Utah this year, state legislators might do an about-face. However, Olson added it might not make a difference, especially if federal tax credits remain in place for the near future and beyond.

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