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My view: Utah is getting up to date with modern clean energy policies

By Sarah Wright

Published: Sunday, March 31 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Friday, Nov. 16, 2012, photo, construction worker Elabert Salazar works on a house frame for a new home.

Gregory Bull, Associated Press

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Walking the halls of the Capitol during the legislative session, it is clear that Utah policymakers have embraced modern technologies. From smartphones and tablets, to tweets and blogs, Utah policymakers understand the importance of staying up to date in the 21st century.

In the case of clean energy policies considered during the 2013 legislative session, their votes are starting to reflect that same understanding. The 2013 session marked a turning point in how Utah policymakers think about clean energy: We moved beyond the question of whether clean energy has a role to play in Utah's energy future to figuring out what common-sense solutions exist and how quickly we can save money and energy. As a result of three new laws, Utahns will be better equipped to face the future with more efficient homes and buildings, innovative new financing options and fair treatment for renewable energy generated by Utah farmers.

The crowning achievement of this session is the passing of House Bill 202, which broke through three years of stalemate to see the adoption of meaningful updates to energy codes for new homes. As a result, Utah families will spend less on energy bills, leaving us with more expendable income that is expected to pump about $18 million into the state's economy over the next 10 years. This is good news for everyone with a wallet.

What made this year so different than the last three? For starters, more homebuilders see the growing demand for homes with lower energy bills. One of these forward-thinking homebuilders is Rep. Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville, who authored HB202. Working closely with Rep. Wilson was Utah Clean Energy, whose perseverance and energy expertise helped ensure the bill achieved meaningful energy savings for new homebuyers and that Utah's new commercial buildings would benefit from the most state-of-the-art, energy-saving standards.

Across Utah, thousands of older buildings are in need of energy improvements where an average of 30 percent of their energy is wasted. One of the most challenging barriers to energy improvements in these buildings is the upfront costs. Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) programs have proved to be a popular tool to help businesses eliminate upfront costs and pay for energy efficiency and renewable energy projects over time. The passage of Senate Bill 221, sponsored by Sen. Kevin Van Tassell, R-Vernal, enables such financing to help businesses retrofit commercial buildings through competitive financing options, and making it easier and cheaper to cut energy use and improve net operating income. What's more, this bill will stimulate Utah's economy by driving job creation in Utah's construction and energy services sectors.

Beyond homes and commercial buildings, lawmakers devised a creative approach to help Utah's farmers and ranchers benefit from homegrown on-site renewable energy systems. A bill, HB284, sponsored by Rep. Keven Stratton, R-Orem, opened the door for Utah's 16,000-plus farmers to use renewable energy to power their irrigation pumps and receive fair credit for excess energy they feed back into the utility grid. This small change will mean big benefits to Utah's rural communities, which are blessed with abundant wind and solar resources.

These three policies represent major steps forward, but there is still much more to do. This winter, Salt Lake City experienced 22 days in which air pollution levels far exceeded federal health standards. Despite the fact that three Utah cities earned the top spots on the U.S. EPA list for worst air in the nation just days before the legislative session started, only one of the six bills to address Utah's poor air quality passed. While cutting energy use and fuel combustion in buildings will play a role in improving Utah's air quality, much more needs to be done in the coming years, and we at Utah Clean Energy are eager to roll up our sleeves to help tackle this difficult problem.

In the meantime, more Utahns will benefit as growing amounts of energy efficiency and renewable energy powers their daily lives. By enacting modern energy policies, Utah policymakers enabled state-of-the-art solutions for today's and tomorrow's energy challenges.

Sarah Wright is the executive director of Utah Clean Energy.

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