John Karakoulakis: Clean and advanced energy jobs will power Utah’s recovery

This Aug. 24, 2017, photo provided by Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President shows solar panels near famed sandstone buttes along the Arizona-Utah border on the Navajo Nation. The Kayenta Solar Facility is the first utility-scale solar project on the reservation, producing enough electricity to power about 13,000 Navajo homes. (Antonio Ramirez/Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President via AP)

Throughout Utah’s history, its citizens have constantly reinvented themselves. Most recently, Utah has been a leader in cultivating a future in the clean energy sector.

But, like the rest of the economy, Utah’s clean energy sector has been set back significantly by the pandemic. Work on new and existing projects has been suspended and restarting them has been difficult in many cases due to strained supply lines and uncertainty. At the same time, demand and prices have fallen. We need to recapture the momentum, and the proven economic benefits of clean energy warrant bold action.

The good news is, Utah is already bouncing back. As Utah’s leaders consider public policy measures to fortify the damaged economy, people are jumping at the opportunity to resume their livelihoods, including in clean energy industries where growth had been so powerful.

Prior to the shutdowns, Utah’s clean energy industry had been a success by any measure, especially the solar sector. In 2019, Utah ranked second in the nation for solar jobs per capita. Through 2018, half of our state’s clean energy came from Utah solar facilities, which have increased their capacity 26 times over Utah’s 2015 solar capacity.

Meanwhile, Utah’s energy efficiency sector has garnered $51 million in investments, which have led to more than 31,000 jobs, resulting in nearly 255,000 megawatt-hours in net incremental savings. And Utah wind power has pulled $900 million in cumulative investments. Over the last 10 years, the cost of wind power in Utah has decreased 40 percent, which clearly shows there’s plenty of room for further development and jobs in this arena.

This great track record has led to support from clean energy throughout Utah — and for good reason. Recent polling conducted in August of 2020, by The Western Way, found that 66 percent of conservative Utah voters want an energy strategy that increases use of electrical generation from renewables, utilizes battery storage and increases energy efficiency. Furthermore, 72 percent of state conservatives believe investment in rural renewable energy infrastructure is important to COVID-19 economic recovery.

Among Utah’s conservative leaders who are taking notice is Congressman John Curtis, who represents Utah’s 3rd District in Washington and is a member of House Natural Resources Committee, the Western Caucus, and the Roosevelt Conservation Caucus. His district has seen a drastic increase in clean energy jobs, and it now has the most solar and energy efficiency jobs of anywhere in the state; in fact, the 3rd District enjoyed over 5,600 solar jobs in 2019, a 26 percent increase from the year before, and it employed more than 12,000 workers in the energy efficiency industry.

But the pandemic has thrown this future into uncertain waters. Between March and April, Utah lost 3,901 clean energy jobs and 2,933 energy efficiency jobs, representing one of the most severe economic hits our state has seen in any sector this year.

We’ve seen Congress come together on numerous stimulus measures, and it’s time to focus on a few pieces of legislation to strengthen the recovery of our clean energy industries.

At the end of last year, Curtis introduced the H.R. 5409, the Incentivizing New and Valuable Energy Storage Technology (INVEST) Act, which aims to further advanced storage technology in the energy industry. Legislation like this shows the energy leadership that Utah needs.

Two broader proposals have already been introduced in Congress could be an even better way forward — America’s Transportation Infrastructure Act (ATIA) and the American Energy Innovation Act (AEIA). ATIA would invest in America’s roads and bridges while accelerating infrastructure projects and funding efforts to reduce carbon emissions. Meanwhile, AEIA would modernize our nation’s energy laws for the first time in more than 12 years.

Investing in clean energy makes sense; it is good for the economy, or national security, and our environment. Utah’s reopening is already underway, but we need to ensure workers have jobs to go back to.

John Karakoulakis is director of The Western Way

John Karakoulakis is director of The Western Way, a non-profit organization focused on conservative solutions to western U.S. conservation issues.