Written by David VanderGriend – This post also appeared in the Kansas City Star

A startling reality has surfaced from the coronavirus health crisis: Pollution has been significantly reduced in recent weeks during the shutdown. Whether in New Delhi, Kansas City, New York, or Beijing, less driving has resulted in cleaner air. Vistas that previously were only foggy images have burst through as crystal clear pictures of what clean air actually looks like. If we thought we were cleaning the air before, we now see we can do better.

The fact that reduced driving equates to reduced pollution is not a surprise to many of us in the fuel business who have studied and understand the negative aspects of our reliance on petroleum alone. And it relates to a second disturbing reality: Minority communities are disproportionately contracting COVID 19 because of the poor air quality resulting from the traffic congestion of the inner cities.

In establishing the Urban Air Initiative, our objective was to improve fuel quality, while recognizing that eliminating the internal combustion engine is neither an immediate nor practical strategy to reducing pollution. With more than 260 million cars registered in the U.S., we will continue to rely on gasoline for the foreseeable future — but we can identify the most harmful components of gasoline and replace them. Ethanol, for example, is a superior substitute for the family of benzene octane gas additives that produce microscopic particulates and are linked to a range of respiratory and other ailments.

In naming our organization the Urban Air Initiative, we did so knowing urban areas are disproportionately subject to harmful auto emissions, and that they are where the most help is needed.

And who lives in urban areas? The very minority groups feeling the brunt of the coronavirus crisis. New York City reports that inner city minorities are experiencing the highest fatalities from COVID-19, and Midwest cities such as Chicago and Milwaukee are similarly affected. So an obvious question is whether these people were predisposed to getting sick by virtue of simply living in urban areas. Our research has always suggested that is the case, but a new study from the Harvard School of Public Health is one of many research efforts that come to this conclusion.

The most important finding of the study is that people living in counties in the U.S. that have experienced a higher level of air pollution as measured by the Environmental Protection Agency over the past 15 to 17 years have a substantially higher COVID-19 mortality rate. And we believe pollution is much, much worse than what the EPA measures. Particulates associated with coal fired power plants or diesel fuel are just part of the story. Much smaller “ultra-fine” particulates that are literally microscopic are essentially unregulated and unreported.

In our correspondence with the EPA, the agency has conceded its modeling fails to capture these tiny particles and their precursors. It has long been understood that fine particulates linger in the air and travel great distances, with data showing anyone within 300 yards of a congested roadway is exposed. Now imagine the impact in an urban area, be it midsize Kansas City or mega-size New York, where pedestrians are within mere feet of automobiles on every corner and tall buildings trap the emissions. Now enters the coronavirus, attacking the same respiratory system that has long been compromised by near-roadway exposure.

The Harvard study pulls no punches in coming to its conclusions: “The majority of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death for COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution. … The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the COVID-19 crisis.”

The takeaway here is that this is of course a nationwide problem, but it is most concentrated in our cities. All Americans — minority or not — need to understand they were already at risk, and will continue to be until we reduce emissions and improve our fuels.

David VanderGriend is president of the 501(c)(4) nonprofit Urban Air Initiative in Colwich, Kansas. Urban Air Initiative is a member of MEC.

As we all shift our routines in an effort to stay safe and healthy in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metropolitan Energy Center is exploring ways to adjust to the new normal. We want you to know we share the collective confusion and frustration of our friends, neighbors, and colleagues. Please remember we are all in this together. Be patient, be kind. And if you need us, we’ll be here, because we have been for over 35 years.

What We’re Doing

As the situation evolves, we are continually adjusting our response. At this time, our dedicated staff are working from home, in consideration of the CDC recommendations and in compliance with the KC Metro stay-at-home order, effective Tuesday, March 25. We are finding innovative ways to support our communities and continue our technical support for regional alternative fuels and energy efficiency advancements.

Staff can best be reached by email, though phone calls are still welcome and will be routed to the appropriate staff as soon as possible on the day the calls are received.

For scheduled meetings and events:

  • All in-person meetings and events for the next 8 weeks are postponed, moved online, or cancelled.
  • Scheduled conference calls will go on and will now offer a web connection in case you are unable to join through a phone connection.

For projects and project deliverables:

  • Staff are conducting a COVID-19 risk assessment for all ongoing projects. If you are involved in a project and believe restrictions due to the crisis present a risk to you meeting your objectives, please notify your MEC staff contact immediately.

Hidden Costs and Silver Linings

This pandemic is something new for nearly all of us. Some Americans—those 75 and older—will remember the polio epidemic of the 1940s and 1950s. But for most of us, this means making changes in the ways we work, live and travel that we’ve never experienced before.

If there’s any sort of silver lining to this situation, it’s that finding new ways to work and move in the next months may lead to longer-term solutions that can improve health outcomes for everyone. COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, and good respiratory health is critical—now, in dealing with this disease, and for our community’s overall health in the future. MEC has worked for decades to cut toxic emissions with energy efficiency, cleaner fuels, intelligent transportation and building systems, and a cleaner, more efficient freight network. This work continues, with our diverse community and stakeholders in mind, and is more critical today than at any other point in history.

What You Can Do

#StayHomeKC. On March 21, elected officials in Jackson, Johnson and Wyandotte counties and the city of Kansas City, Missouri, announced a 30-day stay-at-home order. Other counties in the region have enacted various restrictions to help slow the spread of COVID-19. State and local guidelines are changing rapidly as more cases are confirmed.

For the latest information, check your local health department or city/county websites.

If you should venture away from home, please remember: exhaust irritates lungs. For the sake of those experiencing respiratory difficulty, turn off your engine if you will be waiting for a friend carpooling with you, for car-side delivery service, etc.

Take advantage of your reduced commute time to get outdoors more. Biking, walking and hiking can be done alone, with your pets, or in small groups adhering to social distancing practices.

Some outdoor volunteering opportunities may continue, in small groups adhering to social distancing practices, especially orgs doing wildland management, gardening and cultivation, tree planting, and the like. Carefully evaluate your host’s safety and health policies and practices before signing up. Due to the stay-at-home order, many of these events may be cancelled as well, so contact your host to confirm before showing up.

If you’re a volunteer and miss in-person group volunteering events, stay engaged through GlobalGiving. GlobalGiving’s virtual skilled volunteering platform, GlobalGivingTime, can match you with interesting opportunities from vetted nonprofits around the world, from the convenience of your desk.

Stay Informed

Metro KC officials are keeping PrepareMetroKC.org updated as new information becomes available.

As you know, this situation is continually shifting. We will monitor developments to adhere to federal, state and local advisories, and support the region’s efforts to protect the health and safety of the public.

You’ve seen them, even if you weren’t really looking. A Tesla zipping along I-435, a Leaf silently moving across the grocery store parking lot, a Bolt gliding by the gas station as you filled up. Electric cars are increasingly part of America’s automotive landscape, though still a small percentage of what’s on the road today.

So, ever wonder what it would be like to drive one? Well, here’s your chance.

Metropolitan Energy Center, with generous support from Evergy, is rolling out the Electric Car Experience. It’s a zero-pressure way for you to drive multiple makes and models of all-electric cars and plug-in hybrids.  Stay in town?  Hit the highway?  Your choice.  And all done without sales staff, and with volunteers who own and drive their own electric cars.

The Electric Car Experience is coming POSTONED to United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood at 13720 Roe in Leawood, from 10:00 to 4:00. COR has kindly offered the use of their space as part of their commitment to a more sustainable world. We’ll have our EV fleet in the parking lot just south of the sanctuary.  All you’ll need to do is follow the signs.

Consider this blog entry a placeholder.  All registrations to test drive (or just ride along, if you prefer) will be done online and hosted by Evergy.  Watch this space for further details in the next few weeks!

If you own an EV or PHEV, and would be willing to volunteer, we’d love to have you along for the ride. Please visit https://metroenergy.org/ev-owner-signup/ to learn more and sign up for this exciting outreach event.

DECISIONS, DECISIONS
– As mentioned, buying a car is a big financial decision, and we can’t presume to dictate what meets your needs. Admittedly, efficient is good, more efficient is better, and we’re all in favor of zero-emission options here at MEC (yes, we’re somewhat biased). Even setting aside the positive environmental impact moving away from petroleum creates, we believe that the case for electric vehicles is solid in terms of dollars and cents alone.  Your savings on fuel and maintenance over the lifetime of the vehicle can easily total thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

But in the end, the choice to switch from gasoline or diesel to an EV or PHEV needs to be a choice that works for you. What this closing installment aims to do is to connect you with resources that can help you run the numbers, check the tech, and learn from the experiences of others.

GETTING STICKY – Remember the last time you were at a car dealership? Remember the stickers on the rear windows of every car – the black & light blue stickers, with the MPG totals?

Sample gasoline vehicle fuel economy label

Yeah, those. All light-duty cars and trucks sold in the US get those numbers from federal laboratories, whatever their fuel. In the case of BEV and PHEV models, you’ll notice a substantial difference between a sticker for a conventional car, particularly when it comes to MPG and fuel costs:

Sample electric vehicle fuel economy label

Handy in and of itself, this sticker is only the tip of the iceberg.  There is plenty of information from federal agencies and laboratories available to prospective owners of any car or truck, powered by any fuel.

Let’s begin with the most popular and comprehensive federal site.  Fuel Economy.gov is jointly supported by the Department of Energy and the EPA.  Once on the homepage, click on the tab labeled “Advanced Cars And Fuels”.  The pop-up that results has no fewer than 47 different linked categories for everything from diesel to hydrogen.

Within these categories, there’s plenty to do. If you’d like to compare EV model to EV model, or compare a Tesla with a Ford F-150, the interface is simple and intuitive. You can find estimates for five-year fuel costs, gallons or kilowatt-hours per 100 miles and even gas tank size. Simple or detailed driving cost calculators, information on tax credits, personal online fuel efficiency tracking (for the slightly obsessive), and plenty more tools are ready to use. The same site also hosts the Fuel Economy Guide, updated every year.  The 2020 edition is now up and ready for free download.

A DIGRESSION IN THE NAME OF FULL DISCLOSURE – Once again, there’s no free lunch. There’s no tailpipe, but most electric cars have a smokestack – the power plant they plugged into. However, the Alternative Fuels Data Center has a calculator that shows how much carbon an average EV puts out in a year.  You can use it to compare EVs with hybrid, PHEV and gasoline options. It’s quite broad, and based on state averages. Even so, it’s fascinating to compare EVs in Missouri (coal-heavy) and Kansas (wind-rich) with their petroleum cousins– to say nothing of the yawning gulf between both states and California.

OWNER INPUT AND WEBSITES GALORE – There are lots of websites and owners’ groups out there. This country abounds in organizations devoted to everything from Hendrix to Hummers to hummingbirds, so it’s no surprise that there is plenty of information available on EVs and PHEVs.

 

THINKING LOCALLY
There is a very active group of EV enthusiasts right here in town.  Members of the Mid-America Electric Auto Association would love to field your questions. Feel free to drop in at their monthly meetings (2nd Sundays at 1:00 at the Johnson County Main Library), or through their Yahoo user group. MAEAA members know all about Kansas City weather – icy winters and blazing summers.  They’re quite familiar with how weather impacts the performance of BEVs and PHEVs.  Actually, it impacts the performance of all vehicles, but that’s a subject for another time.

ONLINE
InsideEVs is great at keeping up with tax credits and incentives, and their monthly sales scorecard is, if not formally approved by the industry, solidly based on monthly sales totals from all manufacturers. It’s also a good site for additional details on charging, financing and other, wonkier topics. Their charts on range, cost and incentives cover all available models and are regularly updated.

Green Car Reports A bit broader in scope, this site covers just about everything faintly green in the auto world. Monthly updates on the best deals available, even for efficient conventional cars are handy.  The “First Drives” series covers new cars on the block, and their daily news updates are useful.

Midwest Evolve Hosted by a consortium of Clean Cities coalitions around the Midwest, ME covers a lot of ground. Their website has plenty of user-friendly breakdowns on EV and PHEV how-to, auto show and test drive events, plus an excellent combination blog/news site.

Electric Auto Association One of the oldest EV organizations out there, the EAA has been promoting electric cars since 1967, when going electric was a 100% DIY proposition. Their website is a bottomless pit of information, particularly their EV Links page. Much of their content leans technical , but there’s plenty applicable to those of us who are still in the “just looking” stage.

These are a few of the  many EV sites out there, whether run by clubs, non-profit organizations or businesses. We cannot vouch for 100% accuracy in what you may find there.  This is especially true in online comments sections, which have an unfortunate tendency to resemble . . . online comments sections.

Section 127(s) of Title 23 of the United States Code, as amended by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2019 (PL 116-6), increases the weight limit for natural gas vehicles operating on the interstate Highway System by an extra 2,000 lbs. This increases the limit from 80,000 lbs to 82,000 lbs.

Federal Highway Administration issued a departmental memorandum providing further guidance for this weight allowance.

FHWA Guidance includes the following:

  1. State authorities must allow the additional weight on the Interstate Highway System.
  2. State authorities must provide reasonable access to the Interstate.
  3. Weight allowance applies beyond the Gross Vehicle Weight (extends to single axel, tandem axel and bridge weight formulas limits).
  4. Weight allowance must be taken in addition to other weight allowances.

Follow this link below to access the full PDF provided by NVGAmerica. https://www.ngvamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/NGV-Weight-Allowance-Guidance.pdf