John Hoffmire: Fighting air pollution one electric car at a time

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 8:25 a.m. MDT

A majority of the Utah Division of Air Quality's board has voted in support of proposed new federal standards that would require refineries to cut the sulfur content of gasoline, require larger catalytic converters on automobiles and phase in new heat pumps that make starting a cold vehicle less polluting.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

If one were to identify the top problems in the areas 40 miles north and south of Salt Lake City, most people would name air pollution among the top five. Six counties in Utah have been graded “F” in “State of Air 2013,” according to the report issued by the American Lung Association. Throughout many years, for quite a number of days each year, inversion, a phenomenon characterized by haze, exists over valleys in Utah, causing health problems for young and old alike — especially those who are troubled by bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that more than 150 million people live in places that fall short of the guidelines set up under the National Ambient Air Quality Standards. Each year, up to 30,000 premature deaths in the U.S. can be attributed to fine particulate matter, one of the six main air pollutants. Globally, data published by the World Health Organization shows that 2 million people die every year because of degraded air quality.

The largest single source of air pollution in the United States is no doubt transportation, which accounts for nearly 67 percent of the carbon monoxide, 33 percent of the nitrogen oxides and 25 percent of the hydrocarbons in our atmosphere, according to a report written by the EPA.

Clean vehicle and improved fuel technologies can significantly reduce air pollution. One way to address the pollution caused by gas-fueled cars is to move toward electrically powered automobiles. As it stands, Walgreens and other institutions with customers and/or employees help by providing charging stations to those with electric cars.

At present, the average one-way daily commute for workers across the country is 25.5 minutes according to statistics provided by the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey. Most people drive fewer than 49 miles a day — within the range of most electric vehicles, which typically can travel between 50 and 80 miles before needing to be recharged.

More importantly, new projections by the Electrification Coalition state that the costs of owning electric cars is becoming more and more competitive with those of their gas-powered peers. If more charging stations are available near our homes, workplaces and shopping malls, we can actually replace gasoline-powered cars with electric cars, though a nationwide infrastructure is still far away.

Some organizations, such as CALSTART, a nonprofit organization, actually can help major employers, shopping centers and others to install electric vehicle chargers and promote electric vehicles through subsidized purchasing programs funded by participating companies and other supporters.

Evidence shows that Utah can take progressive steps to address transportation issues. The Legislature recently acted to help alternative-fueled vehicles. Senate Bill 275, signed by Gov. Gary Herbert on March 28, 2013, will impact the future structure of the vehicle market in Utah. According to the general description of the bill, it is aimed to “facilitate the conversion to alternative fuel vehicles and the provision of facilities for alternative fuel vehicles.”

A governing body will be created to manage the conversion procedure and required facilities. Apart from creating this new government branch, the bill also directs the Public Service Commission to initiate new measures that will attempt to improve air quality and provide a new cost recovery mechanism for natural gas corporations.

A green transportation industry will lead to cleaner air, less air pollutants and fewer greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. Such an industry will secure parts of our energy future, and it will probably promote job growth.

John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford. Hong Ding helped prepare this op-ed.

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