Wasatch Front Air Quality: It Starts, and Ends, With Us

As Utahns, the Salt Lake Valley’s air quality during the winter months is something we have begrudgingly become accustomed to and a problem to which we welcome a solution.

Most of us may not realize that the biggest contributors to poor air quality are not just cars and trucks but also homes, small businesses and industry. All of the factors are tied to a population which has, according to the Governor’s Office of Management and Budget, expanded by nearly 900,000 people in the past two decades.

Alan Matheson, state planning coordinator and senior environmental advisor to Governor Gary R. Herbert, says that although we must certainly do more to enhance our air quality, we’re actually producing far less emissions now than we were two decades ago with a smaller population.

“There’s no question we have to do better in terms of improving air quality, and we know it can be done,” said Matheson.  “If you look long term, our air quality is significantly better than it was 20 years ago.  Between 2002 and 2008, in Salt Lake County alone, total emissions went from 409,000 tons to 217,000 tons. Almost cut in half. Part of this has to do with regulation and new auto technology. We meet the federal standards on average about 95 percent of the time. We are working to meet the standards 100 percent of the time.”

In response to the need for improved air quality, a Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) supported professor is developing technologies that, coupled with behavioral changes, may help clear the air and allow us to breathe a little easier.

Regan Zane, a Utah State University (USU) and USTAR supported professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering, is working with his team of researchers to make electric vehicles more competitive with traditional vehicles by improving battery systems. The battery his team is creating will be markedly lighter and about 20-30 percent cheaper than current models. Zane says the goal is to move the transportation sector to a higher level of efficiency and toward vehicle electrification, which means cleaner air for all of us to breathe.

“We are looking at how we can apply controls that manage the energy that goes in and out of the battery cells,” said Zane. “How can we make the batteries last longer and reduce the price for the customer?”

Zane’s battery addresses the issue of poor air quality by making the transition to electric vehicles more economical and leading to more vehicles on the road with zero tailpipe emissions. The air quality concern is shifted from vehicles to electricity generation, where power plants can achieve significantly higher efficiency and lower emissions and can be combined with renewable energy sources.

“We want do physics-based modeling of individual battery cells based on external characteristics,” said Zane. “We want to predict what’s happening inside, and that will allow us to drive harder and avoid degradations.  Our goal is a 10 year plus lifetime for the battery. We are building electronics to integrate with the cells and improve their performance.”

When we drive, heat our homes and manufacture products, especially during the inversion months, we are increasing the amount of particulate matter floating in the air. This comes from the use of fossil fuel furnaces and wood burning stoves in our homes as well as the emissions from our cars and industry. All of this has an impact on the air around us, leaving us to “stew” in the murk of our own making.

The topography of the Wasatch Front negatively impacts our air quality, specifically during the inversion months. The inversion occurs when a layer of warm air covers the cold air in the valley, trapping pollutants. Matheson says that although topography is an issue, something still must be done to fix the bigger problem.

“Topography lends itself to air pollution episodes,” said Matheson. “We recognize that as a challenge, not an excuse. We are looking for ways that we can pull together to solve the problem; air quality is a high priority.”

In 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency tightened its standards and altered the classification system used to give warnings on pollution build-up. What was once classified as a yellow or moderate day is now more often ranked as an unhealthy or red day. This coupled with the public’s awareness of the issue, has raised concerns for those living along the Wasatch Front and other Utah cities.

During the inversion months, we breathe in atmospheric particulate matter, tiny pieces of solid or liquid matter.  It can adversely affect human health, climate and precipitation. Some of these particulates occur naturally from fires, dust storms and vegetation. Burning fossil fuels in cars, power plants and other industrial processes also contributes significant amounts of particulates.

Bryce Bird, director of Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality, expanded on the pollutants trapped in the atmosphere.

“Everything we generate is stuck in here with us,” said Bird.  “Under inversion conditions, the humidity level goes up, emissions concentrate and it creates the right chemical situation where the gas forms particles, and we end up with particulate matter that exceeds federal health standards.”

In November, the state adopted a State Implementation Plan to get Utah into compliance with federal standards by 2019. The plan includes measures to reduce emissions from industry, commercial sources and vehicles.

According to Bird, while the plan is a great step, we need to identify additional reductions that can be made. There are many efforts to do this, including the work of the Clean Air Action Team formed by Gov. Herbert to explore all viable strategies to improve air quality.

Matheson says the state government is trying to lead by example. It has purchased transit passes for all state employees within UTA territory, implemented energy efficiency measures and travel-wise programs, commuter reduction programs, an anti-idling order, and is changing the state fleet to more alternative fuel-based vehicles.

The challenge facing Utah citizens is to proactively identify a solution and collectively alter our behaviors. Can we carpool more? Reduce the number of days we drive each week? Implement cleaner technologies for industry? A difference can be made once we recognize that we are a significant part of the problem, and the effect that vehicles, industry and an ever expanding population have on our air quality.

For a related USTAR story discussing emerging mass transit solutions, please visit http://www.innovationutah.com/blog/driving-transportation-to-a-cleaner-future

A version of this article originally appeared on KSL.com