NSights Blog

Clean Tech, Green Tech and the Past

As we envision our energy and transportation future, it’s valuable to recall the lessons and strategies of the past. What do they have to do with Reno and today?

In a recent blog post, I talked about where I see future energy and transportation technology headed, but it's also valuable to look back and see what was and how we got here.

My research background is in air pollution and I've spent a lot of time working on the emissions from mobile sources (cars and trucks). The history of air-pollution controls applied to mobile sources goes back a long way and provides a valuable look at how success can be found when issues are identified and dealt with aggressively.

The air pollution known as "smog" was first identified in the Los Angeles, Calif., area in 1943. Over many years the combination of pollutants and weather phenomenon that were responsible was identified and the pollutants were shown to be primarily from mobile sources, not factories or power plants. The first emission controls were proposed in 1959 to apply to 1963 and later vehicles. As the population both of people and cars increased dramatically, the need for more and more stringent emission controls was recognized and these were applied. This included altering gasoline formulations, adding catalytic converters to the exhaust systems (1966 for the early catalysts; 1975 for three-way catalysts), and evaporative controls on cars and fuel stations. As I'll show, these systems worked.

It is difficult to explain how bad the air in Los Angeles was during this time. As recently as the late 1970's the Los Angeles area had 220 days per year (60% of the year!) over the Federal Standards for ozone, and 120 of those days reached the Stage I alert level or about three times the standard. People were literally dying as a result of this severe pollution, and being told to go indoors because the air outside was so bad. The Los Angeles county sheriff's office would fly their helicopters over parks and broadcast warnings telling people to go indoors on high ozone days. The highest ever recorded ozone in ambient air occurred on June 27, 1974 at nearly 10 times the standard. That would put the air quality index (AQI) in the undefined region above 500, known simply as "hazardous." For some perspective, the worst air quality index in Reno in recent memory was just over 200 ("unhealthy") in the summer of 2013 from the wildfires.

So, where are we now? This year Los Angeles will have about 80 days above the federal standard, and zero days at Stage I or greater (the last Stage I alert was 1998). This despite a more than doubling of the population and vehicle miles driven on the roads. This is a clear victory for those people with the foresight and political will to impose emission controls on cars. Even in car-crazed Los Angeles. And there was plenty of push-back from industry with the expected hyperbole including claims that emissions controls will spell the end of the auto industry (spoiler: that didn't happen). Only now with forty years of perspective behind us, and with clear air to breathe, we can see how necessary these controls were.

What does this have to do with Reno and today? The great news is Reno - and the rest of the U.S., not to mention the world - has benefitted with clean air from the innovations that led to emission controls on motor vehicles. We no longer have to go indoors to avoid pollution for most of the year. However, Reno is also growing and our economy is doing very well and along with this comes more cars being driven more miles. That means more pollution. Our recent high year for ozone (8 hour average) was 2008 where our Design Value (the statistic used to compare with the standards) was 74 parts per billion against a standard of 75. The recession meant fewer cars and less driving and in 2011 we were at 66. By 2015, we were back up to 71, but that year the standard was tightened to 70 reflecting the advancing science showing the harmful effects of ozone on human health. 2016 will be slightly higher at 72. If we do not get these values down, we will be declared "non-attainment" for ozone and have to implement various strategies to bring the level of ozone back down.

There are a lot of strategies to get ozone back down, electric cars (my favorite "clean tech") is clearly one of them, but this will require a coordinated and multi-faceted approach. My main point here is that we do not want to see a repeat of the harmful air pollution of years past. To accomplish this we need to be as bold, foresighted, and steadfast as those who solved Los Angeles' problems, and come up with solutions that will, over the long term, benefit us all.

John Sagebiel, PhD, is assistant director for environmental program in Environmental Health and Safety, part of Research & Innovation at the University of Nevada, Reno, and has an extensive background in air pollution and sustainability. Sagebiel is chair of the University's Sustainability Committee, lives in a zero-net energy home and drives an electric car.

John Sagebiel