Myron Willson: University of Utah can lead the way toward ‘electrifying everything’

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) The afternoon sun shines on the front of the Park Building and the statue of John Rocky Park, who was the president of the University of Utah from 1869 to 1892, on on November 29, 2011 on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City.

I enjoyed reading the Oct. 6 commentary about improving air quality by University of Utah Senior Vice Presidents Michael Good and Dan Reed and I am happy the U.’s leadership is taking the problem seriously. I agree that higher education can help take a leading role to combat the issue through interdisciplinary research and collaboration.

The U. is doing even more to solve air quality and climate change than was shared in their brief piece. In 2009, the U. made major strides in reducing building emissions through one of the strictest energy-efficiency standards in the nation.

They have committed to clean, renewable and cost-effective renewable energy procurement with offsite geothermal and solar photovoltaic electrical contracts.

They are working to increase the number of people coming to campus in something other than a single-occupant vehicle through UTA transit passes, a very effective bicycle commuting program and by working with Salt Lake City, UTA and UDOT to bring additional transit to campus to strengthen the regional transit infrastructure. It is not an exaggeration to state that students, faculty, staff and administration are doing some amazing work.

However, one area the senior vice presidents failed to discuss was the actual source of our poor regional air quality as well as climate change: burning fossil fuels. Fossil fuels provide some of our electricity, heat buildings, run construction, landscaping and maintenance equipment and power most of our transportation system.

But reducing fossil fuel use and making progress on air quality is not rocket surgery (sic). Experts have known for years that we need to transition to renewable energy then “electrify everything”. While a small part of our air pollution comes from regional forest fires, the bulk of our pollution comes from burning diesel, jet fuel, gasoline and natural gas. Even if those sources become more efficient and cleaner, the projected growth along the Wasatch Front will counteract the potential emission reductions.

We are beginning to make progress towards electrifying transportation with electric vehicles, trains and buses. We have yet to make much progress on electrifying building heat. The University of Utah owns and operates hundreds of buildings totaling nearly 20 million square feet, including hospitals, office buildings, housing, classrooms and laboratories. The PM2.5 emissions from heating all those buildings at the U make it one of the top 10 EPA emitters in Salt Lake County, along with Kennecott, PacifiCorp, Geneva and the refineries.

Electrifying building heat is not some futuristic fantasy. There are already viable solutions on the market to electrify most of the operations at the U. and in our communities. In some instances, those alternatives might cost a bit more than existing methods and, in some cases, the electrical alternatives are cheaper. While that might seem like a risk, we spend a 2% to 3% premium to make our buildings accessible to ADA standards. Reasonable people understand that a small increase for accessibility is the right thing to do and will probably agree that action for clean air is also a good investment.

By adopting a policy to electrify everything moving forward, the U. could show that emissions can be decoupled from some aspects of continued growth. They could help move us towards clean air by sharing their results and expertise to leverage their emission reductions across the region.

We’re not going to solve the issues of climate change and air quality by continuing to grow the system that created the problems in the first place. Even with advances in pollution controls and efficiency measures, the Wasatch Front’s increased growth will eventually outpace our positive initiatives.

The U.’s expertise in research can help inform policy and technology as needed, but we need action right now to commit to electrification and to eliminate emissions we already have solutions for.

Myron Willson

Myron Willson, Salt Lake City, recently retired as the University of Utah’s deputy chief sustainability officer.