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Opinion: Time for bold action on clean air

The budget reconciliation bill currently under consideration in Washington contains the most important clean energy legislation in 50 years

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Solar panels sit atop Mountain View Elementary.

Greg Libecci, energy and resource manager for the Salt Lake City School District, stands with solar panels on the roof of Mountain View Elementary School in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, June 3, 2020. Clean energy has become less expensive in recent years due to innovations.

Steve Griffin, Deseret News

Opportunities for one person to change the world don’t come around every day. Today is one of those chances … if your name is Mike Lee or Mitt Romney.

The budget reconciliation bill currently on the congressional roller coaster in Washington contains the most important clean energy legislation considered in 50 years. The Clean Electricity Performance Program (CEPP) would reward utilities who transition to clean energy, increasing funding and demand for renewable energy infrastructure and research.

CEPP would accelerate the rollout of solar, wind and energy storage technologies, cleaning our air while creating millions of jobs distributed across every ZIP code in the U.S.

This nationwide effort would modernize our aging electricity grid, decrease energy costs, and reinforce our national security and energy resiliency. The program would also address the urgent issues of air pollution and climate change. Dirty air kills approximately 200,000 Americans every year, including 2,500 to 8,000 Utahns, according to a BYU study published in 2020.

Now is the moment for bold action on clean air and climate. American innovation has resulted in miraculous leaps forward in renewable energy and storage. Solar panel and battery costs have dropped 91% and 93% since 2010, making renewables the cheapest electricity ever available to humankind.

Utility-scale batteries now beat natural gas plants at providing peak demand, opening the door to the rapid and reliable rollout of solar and wind. Indeed, regions as diverse as Australia, Vietnam, and Kansas are taking advantage of this renewable revolution to secure affordable and clean local power.

With our abundant renewable resources and diverse workforce, this legislation would establish Utah as a national and global leader in clean manufacturing and energy. For Utah’s rural communities, many of which currently depend on fossil fuels, this investment is especially important. The fossil fuel industry is in structural decline, and we need to ensure a vibrant and sustainable future for these communities that have served our state for so long. The CEPP and other investments in the reconciliation bill would create high-paying local jobs throughout rural Utah that aren’t vulnerable to boom-and-bust cycles driven by fluctuations in foreign demand.

The technology and economics are proven and ready. The question is, do our lawmakers have the courage and vision to seize this opportunity? Gridlock in the Senate means that clean air and quality jobs in Utah are now at the mercy of a West Virginian Democrat. The program may never see the light of day because Joe Manchin — who has more than $5 million in personal coal investments — doesn’t like it.

Utah has a reputation for putting people above politics. The Utah Way focuses on values and results. Sens. Romney and Lee could change the course of history by stepping across party lines.

We know they don’t like everything in the reconciliation package. We don’t either. Like any large legislative package, there are inefficiencies and compromises. But if they don’t engage, our state has no say. Simply by reaching across the aisle, they could improve the package and make sure that the Clean Electricity Performance Program and other energy provisions are retained or expanded. Their participation would transform this from a win for Democrats into a triumph for all Americans.

We know these senators carry tremendous weight and are under pressure from so many directions. But this isn’t just another law. It would set the U,S, on track to clean air, stable climate, and sustained prosperity for decades to come. It would take courage and resolve to take a stand. Everything that is worthwhile does. We hope and pray that they will stand up for Utah’s interests in the Utah way.

Benjamin Abbott is a professor of environmental science and sustainability at Brigham Young University. Rachael Lauritzen is a practical arts teacher at Wasatch Charter School. Robert Davies is a professor of climate change at Utah State University.