How to Ultimately Fix the Air Quality in Utah

Source, used with permission
Source, used with permission

Air Quality Better

Anyone who has to deal with asthma or any of the multitudes of other respiratory illnesses can tell you that the air quality here in Utah is an issue.  Even those individuals who don’t have any health issues can just look outside on an inverted afternoon and practically taste the poor air quality.  However, when we look out at the valley on those dreaded “red” days, we all make the inevitable assumption that the air quality is much worse today than it was when we were growing up 20 to 30 years ago.

It is an easy assumption to make as many of us are much more aware of the pollution in the air and there’s no argument that it has become more pronounced over the past 10 years.  However, in an article published in January by the Deseret News, it talks about the fact that air quality is better now than it was 30 years ago.  So despite the fact that we have many more individuals living in Utah and many more cars on the road, the air quality is actually better.

Why?

While educational efforts have gone a long way in helping better educate the population as a whole, with government initiatives having a mild effect on these outcomes, the main driver for the improved quality of air has been technology.  No longer are the vast majority of households using wood burning stoves that according to the California Resource Board produces the equivalent (in terms of emissions) of 3,000 gas furnaces.  According to EPA data CO2 emissions from new passenger vehicles fell to 376 grams per mile (g/mi) in 2012.  This is a decrease of  6 percent since 2011, an 18 percent reduction since 2004 and a remarkable 44% since 1975.  There are many other such examples in other areas where technological improvements have shown dramatic effects in the reduction of air pollutants being emitted in various sectors of the economy.

Technology is the key to improvement

The point being is that is that while air quality is a huge issue here in Utah (and rightfully so), if we want to see substantial improvements, we are going to have to look towards technology to find it.  While this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on the smaller, simpler solutions that could have an impact with the air quality here in Utah, the solution will ultimately provide us with that fresh clean air we are looking for, will come from consistent or dramatic changes in the energy sector.

There’s no doubt that government regulations and policies have played a role in the overall decline of air pollution over the past 30 years.  However, when compared to the technological advancements over that same 30 year period, the results are minimal at best.  Even now, many Utah legislators are taking on the tasks of passing legislation that will help tackle very specific aspects of air quality (many of which are needed) but ultimately do very little in changing the overall landscape of the poor air quality here in Utah.

Solutions

We have a tendency to look to government to fix all of our issues.  To be sure, there are justifiable reasons to protest and demand action from our local and federal legislators on various issues, especially when it comes down to the air quality specifically here in Utah. However, to see the wide-scale change of improving air quality here in Utah (going short of actually rearranging topographical pieces of the Salt Lake Valley), it’s going to be technology that will give us the results that we are looking for.

Many are currently tackling this issue but for the most part, many of the solutions don’t meet the “Chindia test” as defined by Vinod Khosla, a multibillionaire clean energy venture capitalist and founder of Sun Microsystems. The Chindia test is defined as a solution that is cheaper than the current status quo in China and India. Anything that will uproot the global reliance on oil or coal must be less expensive; else it will never gain traction in the global and local marketplace. So the issue really isn’t one of “us” not being able to come up with a solution but rather “us” coming up with an economically viable solution that is both scalable and sustainable for the distant future.

It’s hard to see the technology that will come along to help mitigate the awful smog that we see out our windows today.  But thus is the long history of technology.  Providing solutions to what previously were impossible problems to solve.  While I admire the resolve that many have in protesting the legislature into doing something innovative; possibly a better use of their time would be to help brainstorm possible ideas with budding entrepreneurs/engineers and venture capitalists into finding creative, sustainable and scalable ways of improving the air quality here in Utah.  If there is one thing that I’ve learned over the years, it’s that the answer is usually not the hardest part of the equation to solve, it’s asking the right question in the beginning that is often times the most challenging barrier to overcome.

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