Commentary: How to spend $100 million on air quality

Exhaust comes from the tailpipe of a vehicle Thursday, Jan. 3, 2019, in Salt Lake City. Inversions hover over Salt Lake City as cold, stagnant air settles in the bowl-shaped mountain basins, trapping tailpipe and other emissions that have no way of escaping to create a brown, murky haze that engulfs the metro area. Doctors warn that breathing the polluted air can cause lung problems and other health concerns, especially for pregnant women and people with respiratory issues. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

The Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah applauds Gov. Gary Herbert for his proposal to spend $100 million of the state’s $1 billion projected 2019 revenue surplus on air quality improvement projects that can be accomplished with one-time funding.

Utah’s taxpayers may be wondering how that much money could be best spent to significantly reduce our air pollution. Below are some ideas that could make important and positive impacts on our airshed:

  • There are 110,000 stoves along the Wasatch Front contributing 12 percent to 15 percent of the direct particulate air pollution that builds up during a winter inversion. A comprehensive woodstove changeout program could cost as much as $450 million. But targeting the program to only lower-income households, where wood is used to offset heating costs, would require less money.

  • Snow blowers and lawnmowers contribute about 6 percent of emissions and are typically used at times of the year when air quality can be at its worst. Electric versions of these cost $150-$200, meaning that $10 million could fund the replacement of 50,000 polluting small engines.

  • There are 60 diesel locomotive switching engines along the Wasatch Front that run continuously all winter long, contributing 7 percent of air pollution. It would cost about $1.5 million per unit to upgrade these Tier 0 engines to Tier 4 — the cleanest engines available. The total cost would be $90 million.

  • Diesel construction vehicles contribute 6 percent of pollution during the winter. State contracts could favor project bids from companies that use the best available emissions control technologies and subcontractors who do the same. Funds could be used to offset additional costs that could be associated with these bids.

  • Residential homes contribute up to 16 percent of emissions from appliances such as our furnaces and water heaters. Homeowners could be incentivized to retrofit their existing properties with better insulation and windows and replace old appliances with new, more efficient versions. For example, ultra low-NOx water heaters are 75 percent more efficient than the standard water heater and only cost about $100 more.

  • Passenger vehicles contribute roughly 50 percent of air pollution throughout the valley. The state tax incentive to purchase EVs was recently phased out and additional fees have been imposed on EV registration. To help spur market adoption and reduce “range anxiety,” some funding could be used to reinstate the tax incentive and invest in additional EV charging stations.

  • Heavy-duty vehicles, such as delivery trucks and long-haul commercial trucks, contribute up to 13 percent of pollution. Incentives could be established to help these fleets employ the cleanest available vehicles and best operating practices.

  • Public transportation is another effective way to reduce auto emissions. The cost of implementing free fare days during the winter inversion season is around $70,000 on a weekday and $50,000 a day on weekends.

  • There are many voices along the Wasatch Front with ideas about how to achieve the necessary emissions reductions needed to improve our air quality. A regional plan that incorporates all of these ideas and more would provide a blueprint for taking the most effective action.

Ultimately it is our legislators that will decide whether to invest this unprecedented $100 million toward air quality. Their previous work in this area has addressed the “low-hanging fruit.” Some have said they are hesitant to commit significant money to new air quality projects this year. We hope that those we elect to represent our best interest will realize that the long-term health of Utah’s economy and its residents now hinges on extra effort and funds it will take to tackle the more complicated projects needed to improve our air.

Scott Williams

Scott Williams, M.D., is executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.

Jessica Reimer | Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah

Jessica Reimer is policy associate at the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah.

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