How Utah’s Olympic bid could bolster the clean energy shift

Two decades after hosting the Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City is trying to bring the event back to Utah, with major implications for the state’s electric mix.

This time, the city will have to respond to a new pressing request from the International Olympic Committee (IOC): to organize an international sporting event on snow for two weeks and leave the climate better than before.

Proponents hope the step change — and the platform the Olympics provide — could help catalyze the clean energy transition in Utah, where more than 60% of the state’s net electricity generation came from the coal in 2021. Salt Lake City is offering to host the 2030 Winter Olympics – the first open spot on the calendar. It is also in contention for the 2034 games.

Utah bid organizers met with IOC officials in Switzerland in June and discussion of Olympics sustainability goals continued at an IOC Executive Board meeting last month, but a decision is not expected until next year.

Mario Molina, president of the climate advocacy group Protect Our Winters, said a bid for the Olympics should put pressure not only on the host city, but also on the state and the whole country, to be more aggressive on renewable energy, even with Utah’s current reliance on fossil fuels. fuels.

“It is possible to be carbon neutral,” Molina said. “The best thing we can do is the best we can do. We know it’s difficult for an event of this scale to be absolutely carbon neutral, but it can leverage the host city and country to drive climate action.

According to the IOC guidelines published in 2020, the Organizing Committees of each Olympic Games will be required to minimize and offset the direct and indirect carbon emissions created by the event, as well as to implement “sustainable carbon-free solutions for the Olympic Games and beyond”.

Skeptics have increasingly criticized the Olympics for their environmental and economic costs to host cities, often with good reason, said Georgia State University professor Tim Kellison.

Kellison, who studies the ecology of sport, said events can be defined by “white elephant facilities that are built for a three-week event and not used much after that.”

“There may also be a reluctance on the part of many sports and corporate stakeholders to speak out on climate change,” Kellison said. “To their credit, the IOC has made environmentalism a pillar of Olympism, especially over the past 20-30 years.”

“Pathway to Systemic Sustainability”

Fraser Bullock, CEO of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, said in an interview that the IOC’s goals “align perfectly with what Utah is already trying to accomplish” and that sustainability has long been a principle of nomination.

The 2002 Games, he said, helped spur investment in light rail and public transport, and organizers are already in contact with local governments to find out how investment in the Olympics could be made. align with existing carbon reduction targets.

In a 2018 report, the Utah Olympic and Paralympic Exploratory Committee promised an event that “could help pave the way for systemic sustainability,” one that could be a benchmark for future Olympics.

Key to this commitment is the fact that venues from the 2002 Games – including Utah Olympic Park in Park City and the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center southeast of Salt Lake City – have been maintained and could be reused. , thus reducing the need for new construction. A potential 2030 Olympics in Utah would take place just two years after Los Angeles hosts the Summer Olympics, which could also create an opportunity to reuse equipment, electronics and other temporary infrastructure. organizers said.

The bidding process also aligns with Salt Lake City’s independent goal of achieving 100% net renewable electricity by 2030. The city plans to achieve this goal through the Community renewable energy, a community aggregation program with 17 other Utah cities and counties, including the winter sports havens of Park City and Summit County (thread of energyJune 10).

Electricity needs for the Olympics could be incorporated into those goals, the exploratory committee said.

However, Utah itself got about 85% of its electricity from coal and natural gas in 2021, according to the US Energy Information Administration, and has no clean energy mandate at scale. of State.

David Eskelsen, spokesman for Rocky Mountain Power, which serves most of Utah, said that while the utility has not had detailed discussions, “regardless of the city’s goals and the [U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s] goals, we are ready to discuss how we might achieve them. »

Eskelsen added that parent company PacifiCorp’s long-term plans envision new solar and wind resources that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 74% from 2005 levels by 2030.

In a statement, Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall said the community renewable energy program – which will account for approximately 25% of the state’s electric load – “puts us in an incredible position to really be at living up to the sustainability goals set by the International Olympic Committee.”

“There is no doubt in my mind that Salt Lake City could and will host one of the greenest Olympics ever – and that’s one of the things that makes us very competitive,” Mendenhall said.

The overarching question, however, is whether a carbon-positive Olympics is even possible.

Organizers have boasted that the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics relied on renewable energy as much as possible and suggested that carbon credits more than offset the total emissions created by the games.

Beijing, which hosted the 2022 Winter Olympics, has also bragged about using only wind and solar power to power the games, while repurposing and upgrading existing venues to run longer. efficiently with technologies such as carbon dioxide refrigeration for indoor locations. Organizers purchased carbon offsets before the games to offset around 1.3 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent allocated to the Olympics, although the final emissions figure is likely to be lower than this as spectators do not were not allowed to attend.

Environmentalists question the use of carbon offsets, which are notoriously difficult to track and could be tied to tree growth that is not permanent. The total impact of all the Olympic Games – including transport, accommodation and consumption of spectators, athletes and political delegations – is far greater than that of buildings and electricity for two weeks of competitions.

At the same time, spotlighting accommodation means that electrical reliability will be essential. Rocky Mountain Power’s Eskelsen said the utility typically has excess power in the winter, and the experience of supplying the 2002 Olympics means there are no reliability concerns — even with an energy mix evolving towards more intermittent renewable energies and away from fossil fuels. plants.

Still, fossil fuel advocates have said clean energy alone may not be enough for the state.

Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said in an article last year that natural gas is often associated with large wind and solar projects, helping to improve their reliability and affordability. She argued that going “full speed on wind and solar power will not provide us with 100% of the energy we need to continue living the life we ​​are used to”.

“Oil and natural gas are not the enemies of wind and solar development,” she said.

Existential threat?

A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland found that the Olympics have actually become less sustainable over time, in part due to the increasing size of events.

Although the study found that the Olympics “could prove particularly useful in addressing the looming sustainability challenges for cities in an era of rapid urbanization”, in reality the organizing bodies “fail to provide a consistent definition or model for independent assessment”.

Of 16 Olympics studied, the report found that the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City were the most sustainable, but were still not considered highly sustainable.

“All paper pledges have zero impact on climate geochemistry,” said Molina of Protect Our Winters. “There must be 100% accountability and 100% transparency. More important than making the Games carbon neutral, the IOC and Olympians must leverage the platforms to drive large-scale policy change.

Kellison, of Georgia, said mega-events like the Olympics that make big promises can often fail in the face of reality, especially with little enforcement.

“It’s not like the IOC can step in and say we’re stopping the games,” he said. Still, he added, that shouldn’t deter cities from using the Olympic platform to bring about change.

“The fact that Salt Lake City has incorporated this part of its plans and is already working on it is something that might even spur action at the state level,” Kellison said. “The Chinese government has used its recent Olympic Games to demonstrate a broader commitment that has not been seen in the past. There’s reason to be skeptical, but if it happens it can spur a lot of action.

Proponents say sustainability pledges aren’t just a tool for games – they’re an existential necessity.

A study by the University of Waterloo found that without measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, only one of the 21 previous host cities of the Winter Olympics – Sapporo, Japan, which hosted in 1972 – would have the right climatic conditions to host a safe event by 2080. Even if the goals of the Paris climate agreement are met, according to the report, only eight of 21 cities would have the right conditions.

Former Olympic mogul skier and longtime Utah resident Troy Murphy said it was a warning not just for winter athletes and fans, but “for all of humanity.”

“If we want the Winter Olympics to be there, it will be very important that we take these issues seriously,” said Murphy, who is affiliated with Protect Our Winters. “Any of the host cities, but especially a place like Salt Lake City, should achieve these goals whether or not they get the Olympics.”

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