New push underway to reduce west-side pollution — inside and out

Grant will help residents upgrade their home energy systems

Inspect a home on the west side and you are likely to find a gas stove, an older furnace and a lack of proper insulation.

Go in the heat of the summer and the air conditioner may be blasting. In the winter, that furnace may be cranked up.

That translates not only to higher utility bills but also higher climate costs in an area that already suffers from pervasive poor air quality.

“Salt Lake County’s west-side communities are vulnerable to several unique forms of pollution not experienced by other neighborhoods within the county,” said Ofa Matagi, an access and equity associate with the Utah Clean Energy nonprofit. “It includes emissions from close freeways, industrial pollution, and pollution from energy use because a lot of the homes on the west side are older homes, and so they’re using outdated heating furnaces and other measures within their homes.”

Armed with a one-year grant from Intermountain Healthcare, Utah Clean Energy aims to start changing that by upgrading energy efficiency in west-side homes and buildings, helping to mitigate the health and environmental impacts in underrepresented communities.

One beneficiary is Guadalupe School, a charter school that serves mostly low-income, immigrant families of ethnic minorities. The other would be a Pacific Islander-centered group that has yet to be selected. The $20,000 grant is to be divided between both institutions.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Guadalupe School teacher Reggie Jones helps sixth graders with adjectives and adverbs after school, April 6, 2022. The school has received a grant that will help families in the community upgrade the energy-efficiency of their homes.

They get to choose whether to work on energy-efficiency systems for their buildings or dedicate the money to provide upgrades to members of their communities.

Facility improvements would include energy assessments and work with Rocky Mountain Power and energy experts to help do an energy audit within the building. The goal: Determine which power-saving resources could be used. Possibilities range from switching to LED lighting to installing better controls for existing heating and cooling methods.

Home upgrades would focus on installing smart thermostats, electric stovetops, LED lights, attic insulation and air sealing improvements.

“This really is to build the awareness of things that you can do within your home that are relatively cost-effective,” Matagi said. “...Then they’ll see not only a health outcome from that but also bill savings.”

In a similar project Utah Clean Energy conducted at Salt Lake City’s Calvary Baptist Church, crews expected to save 158,000 kilowatt-hours a year and cut annual electricity bills by about $6,700 through energy-efficient upgrades.

Meanwhile, home upgrades for about a dozen participating congregants were expected to save them more than 31,000 kilowatt-hours and 77,440 cubic feet of natural gas a year. It also would save each homeowner an average of $224 on the annual utility tab.

Guadalupe School decided to funnel its grant money to members of its community. Nine west-side families are poised to receive the home improvements this summer, said Guy Lebeda, the school’s development officer.

“It turns out,” he said, “that our ZIP code, where Guadalupe is and where most of our client families live, in the Rose Park area and Glendale, has the dirtiest air in Utah.”

With this initiative, Lebeda added, not only will families see savings in their energy bills, “but they’re also going to get some education about how energy consumption affects their bill, and how our overall use of energy affects the air quality in our neighborhood.”

For Utah Clean Energy, projects like this represent more than just a step away from fossil fuels. Working on the electrification of homes is also a way of giving tools to underserved communities to get information and advocate for themselves in terms of environmental justice.

Ultimately, Utah Clean Energy’s goal is to inform west-siders about actions they can take to reduce the impact of air pollution in homes.

“Many people think that air quality is an outdoor thing, something that we breathe and sometimes see when we see inversions,” Matagi said, but the air quality within a home is just as important.

Utah Clean Energy also received a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency meant to ensure the fair treatment of communities when it comes to developing, implementing and enforcing environmental rules.

With this project, the nonprofit plans to hold listening sessions to discover barriers and opportunities to boost energy efficiency on the west side.

Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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