EPHRAIM—Perhaps no one has steered the direction of electricity in Ephraim City and throughout much of Utah more carefully and for as many years as Ted Olson.
Olson, a retired Snow College math and physics professor, came to Snow College and Ephraim in the early 1970s and became a driving figure in Utah’s power grid for 40 years.
He has seen big changes happen, and he says there are more on the horizon, and not all of them will be easy.
Only a few years after Olson moved to Ephraim, his father-in-law landed a seat on the city council and told Olson, “If I have to have a city job, so do you.” Olson ended up on the five-member Ephraim Utility Board. He’s still on what is colloquially known as the power board. In fact, he’s been chairman since 1995.
In his early days on the power board, city power resources were minimal. The city had one hydroelectric plant, built in 1905. It remains the oldest functioning hydroelectric power generator in the western United States. The city also purchased power from what was then Utah Power & Light Co. (now Rocky Mountain Power).
In 1978, Olson recalls, Ephraim had more power needs, so the city arranged for power from the Colorado River Storage Project, run by the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. Utah Power & Light purchased the power, which was generated at the Glen Canyon Dam, and sold it to the city.
At the time, Ephraim City was drawing 2,800 kilowatt hours per month, Olson says. It now draws 8,500 kilowatt hours per month.
“That shows you how we’ve grown,” he says. “There have been efficiencies, too, so that has slowed the impact of our growth rate. Electronic devices, TV, microwaves are using less power. Back then we also didn’t have natural gas, either. It’s helped reduce a lot of electricity needs too.”
A major challenge occurred in the late 1970s when Utah Public Service Commission ruled that Utah Power and Light could no longer sell power to cities.
“Before that happened, we were swimming in power surplus,” Olson said. “After the change, we had to raise the rates twice. It was very painful.”
It was then that the Utah Association of Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), a consortium of 21 cities with municipal power operations. was formed. Today the organization has 47 members. Right at the beginning, Olson was designated the Ephraim City representative on the UAMPS board. He ended up serving on the board for 35 years, includi
ng time as chairman.
In 1980, to help keep the lights on in Ephraim, the city built a second hydroelectric plant, which tripled the local power supply.
“It’s turned out to be a very good investment for us,” Olson says. “Initially, it was expensive, but now that it’s paid for and we’ve replaced a few things, it’s our cheapest source of power.”
As the city grew, so did the needs of the power system, he says. The next source came from UAMPS purchasing equity in the Hunter Plant, a coal-powered plant in Emery County built by what was then Utah Power & Light. Olson was one of the board members overseeing the purchase.
By the mid-1980s, the power distribution system in Ephraim itself was failing, obviously a top issue for the Ephraim Utility Board. Steps needed to be taken.
“We had insulation hanging off the conductors and wires were exposed,” Olson says. “We did an upgrade in the distribution system and built a new substation, at that time out by the middle school. The perimeter of the town was all energized to higher voltages and made more efficient. It was a major milestone.”
In his roles on the Ephraim Utility Board and UAMPS Board of Directors, Olson continued looking for promising power sources.
The next big bet, one of the biggest over Olson’s career in public power, was the $4 billion Intermountain Power Project (IPP) in Delta. The payoff has made it a good gamble, Olson says.
“The IPP was kinda scary,” Olson says. “We dumped a lot of money into the studies with no guarantee that we would get a dime back. It was a big risk.”
Ephraim City acquired a 0.5-percent interest in the project. “Even a 0.5 percent could bankrupt our city back then in one month, so you can see how it was kind of a risky deal,” Olson says.
“But the real driver was California. They were starving for electricity in southern California at the time, and due to regulations, they couldn’t build a coal fired plant, but we could do it here,” Olson says.
The project paid off in the long term. According to sources in the American Public Power Association in Washington D.C., the arrangement is one-of-a-kind.
“We have a source of power we can call and use when we want, and avoid paying for more than we need,” Olson says. “It’s a very win-win situation.”
The IPP was special in other ways too, Olson says.
“Of that $4 billion, $1 billion was spent on pollution control to make it the cleanest power plant in the nation, and that’s exactly what it was at that time,” he says.
In 1989, while continuing to serve on the UAAMPS board, Olson joined the board of the Intermountain Power Association (IPA), a consortium of 23 cities and the principal owner of IPP. He’s been on the board ever since, and for the past seven years has served as chairman.
“This is the biggest public power position in Utah,” Olson says. “It’s a big deal for Ephraim to be represented so fully.”
In the early 2000s, while serving on both power consortium boards, he helped drive an important UAMPS project, the construction of the Nebo natural gas generation station outside Payson.
The Nebo station was a different kind of power station, meant to generate electricity during peak use hours only, which made it an especially valuable asset. Olson and then Gov. Olene Walker cut the ribbon on the plant.
“In the entire time I’ve been involved in the business, I and the city council and the boards have taken the attitude that we should have diverse sources,” Olson says. “So that if something happens to one, we aren’t totally hurt, we have others to draw on. We’ve got hydro, natural gas, coal fired and more.”
Olson even added wind power to the fold, with the purchase of power from the Pleasant Valley wind station in Wyoming and the construction of the Horse Butte wind station outside of Idaho Falls.
Olson says wind is perhaps the least efficient method of generating power but is still a component in a diverse portfolio.
“Quite frankly, wind is not the best resource at all,” Olson says. “Horse Butte wind is our most expensive resource. It has great big turbines, as big as any in the country. They sweep out an area as big as a football field.” But, he says, the wind doesn’t always blow at the times power is needed. “A kilowatt hour at noon isn’t worth nearly as much as later that night.”
Olson says cost effectiveness is also a factor in selection of generating resources.
“We always try to do things so it’s most economical for the citizens of the community,” he says. “New resources are more expensive than old ones, but old ones have more maintenance than new ones. It’s kind of a balancing act.”
In recent times, Olson has been busy working on new power projects. A rare geological formation exists underneath the IPP plant property—a salt dome.
A proposal is being considered to use injected water to hollow out the dome to store compressed air.
Compressed air power is a cheap power source that can be used to generate higher-value electricity. According to Olson, California is saturated with solar farms. The farms use solar power to run the compressors during the day. Then at night, when ordinarily solar power can’t be generated, pressurized air can be bled out to spin a turbine and generate valuable peak-load time electricity. The entire process is carbon-free, Olson says.
An increased emphasis on carbon-free power is the catalyst for big changes for Olson and Utah public power. In California, a pending ban on purchasing electricity from coal-fired sources means the IPP plant has to convert to natural gas by 2025 in order to continue selling power to Los Angeles.
For the largest coal fired power plant in Utah, that is a big transition. A political climate characterized by opposition to coal is going to leave a big impact in rural Utah, Olson says.
“Electricity generation and regulations are evolving across the nation,” Olson says. “Coal has become a four letter word…. They’re making it difficult on us. But it’s bigger than all of us.
“Between the coal mining, trucking, transportation and the spinoff enterprises from the IPP, it creates economic activity of more than $800 million per year just in rural Utah,” he says. “This is a big deal. There are 400 people employed at that plant over there. When we go to natural gas, we only need 100.”
Olson says many IPP workers have been at the plant since the early 1980s and are getting ready to retire. IPA is hoping attrition from retirements will soften the impact of the coal-powered shutdown.
Olson has high hopes other emerging energy opportunities, such as the salt caverns, will help shore up employment at IPP.
While Olson continues to focus on the challenges and details of bringing power to Ephraim and other Utah cities, his 40 years of service loom large.
“As one of the founding board members, Ted has shown great leadership on the board and has supported UAMPS’ membership and project growth from 21 members and one project, to 47 members and 16 projects,” says Douglas Hunter, UAMPS general manager.
Corey Daniels, Ephraim power superintendent and a Power Department employee for 20 years, says, “He has fought to keep our rates low in the different projects he’s been involved with…He wants what’s right for the community.”