Power in Partnership: Clean Air Minnesota

  • October 30, 2019
  • |
  • Jon Emerson-Kramer

Between 2017 and 2019, Clean Air Minnesota replaced 322 wood-burning appliances in Northern Minnesota to reduce wood smoke emissions, completed 31 heavy-duty diesel emissions reduction projects across the state, and supported local businesses in replacing their gasoline-powered equipment with battery-powered alternatives. Not bad for two years!

The Clean Air Minnesota logo with the Environmental Initiative logo.

WHAT IS CLEAN AIR MINNESOTA?

Before we talk more about the public health impacts we have had, I want to take some time to explain how the Clean Air Minnesota partnership works, and what makes it successful. Clean Air Minnesota, affectionally referred to as CAM by partners, is a public-private-community partnership convened by Environmental Initiative. We bring together members of the public sector, private business representatives, and community members to have discussions on clean air impacts in Minnesota, then work together to make meaningful change to improve air quality in our state.

Minnesota has relatively good air quality, but local air quality isn’t consistent. If you’ve ever been biking on a fall day and passed a bonfire, you know that air quality can be different from place to place. Poor air quality disproportionately affects communities of color, low-income communities, and people with existing health conditions. We work with partners in those communities to focus our efforts where they can be most impactful.

In our recent partnership with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, we were intentional about including community members in our conversations, changing our partnership model from public-private to public-private-community. We see this as an important step in our work to increase equity in air emissions reductions and reduce health impacts on underrepresented and overburdened communities. By including community, we can better engage with members of the communities we are hoping to support. Rather than do work to them, we are able to work with them, including them throughout the process.

POWER IN PARTNERSHIP

When we talk about Clean Air Minnesota, we’re talking about partnership. The amount of emissions reduced is an important part of our work, but it wouldn’t be possible without our partners.

Clean Air Minnesota is a public-private-community partnership. The partnership is co-chaired by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, and is comprised of members who are dedicated to air quality and public health improvements. The Core Team is a group of key stakeholders who offer input and feedback on the partnership direction, goals, and convenings. In addition, the Partner Group is a group of 25 to 30 people with diverse backgrounds who represent the varied interests of stakeholders in emissions reductions activities, including industry leaders, public health experts, state officials, and private organizations.

1,000,000 CARS OFF THE ROAD

And now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the results. What have the last two years of partnership brought us? Well, a lot of emissions reductions, to start, which leads to public health benefits across the state.

Four children in front of a school bus with a green sign that says "Project Green Fleet" on it.

Our Mobile Source Team focuses on mobile sources of air pollution, such as heavy-duty off-road equipment through Project Green Fleet. We focus on voluntary emissions-reduction activities, when companies are in compliance with federal regulations, but want to go above and beyond to better the environment and the health of their neighbors. In this two-year period, our Mobile Source Team completed 31 projects, which resulted in 603.31 tons of NOx reduced. NOx is short for Nitrogen Oxides, which are emitted when fuel is burned at high temperatures. Exposure to NOx can cause respiratory damage, leading to increased risk of respiratory infections or asthma, especially in children and the elderly.

The Area Source Team focuses on sources of pollution that can be isolated to certain locations, or practices in those locations, like dry cleaners and auto body shops. Our aim is to target sources of air pollution that are less regulated federally and state-wide. In this time period, we piloted the High Emitting Vehicle Project (now known as Project Clean Air Repairs). This project was our opportunity to partner with auto body repair shops.

Another effort of the Area Source Team was the Small Business Alternative Landscape Equipment Grants, which supported the change from gasoline-powered landscape equipment to battery-powered alternatives. That work resulted in a 174-ton reduction of VOCs. VOCs, volatile organic compounds, are similar to NOx in that they’re released from burning fuel and can affect individuals’ ability to breathe easy and well.

Two hydronic heaters, one "before" and one "after," replaced by Project Stove Swap. The "before" heater is worn. The "after" is in better shape.

Finally, the Wood Smoke Team focuses specifically on wood smoke as a pollutant. The chemicals and particulates in wood smoke can greatly diminish air quality, leading to respiratory concerns, such as lung disease. During this time, Project Stove Swap successfully completed its first round of replacements, which resulted in 322 appliances being updated, $1.9 million in economic activity in Northern Minnesota, and emissions reductions of 54.212 tons of PM2.5, 26.17 tons of VOCs, and 1.493 tons of NOx. PM2.5 is shorthand for particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers. (That’s far smaller than even a human hair.) Breathing in particulate matter can distress the lungs, and particulates that small can even get into the bloodstream. Given the success of Project Stove Swap, Clean Air Minnesota has received support to expand the program to the Metro Area, bringing the improvements in local air quality to the Twin Cities.

Now that we’ve discussed all the ways Clean Air Minnesota has reduced emissions, what has the collective impact of this work been? Well, CAM reduced PM2.5 by 240.29 tons, VOCs by 247.451 tons, and NOx emissions by 605.83 tons. Overall, this work has had the equivalent of removing 1,000,000 cars off the road each year. These emissions reductions are greater than our past four years of work combined.

And, importantly, Clean Air Minnesota’s work is cost effective. For every dollar spent on air quality improvements, there is between $13 and $30 of public health benefits. Numbers like that don’t just make dollars—they make sense.

WE’RE JUST GETTING STARTED

Sign saying "Happy 15th Clean Air Minnesota."As we enjoy our success, we know there is still work to do. Until air pollution is eliminated, we know we must push ahead. We are excited to engage with more community members across the state, to increase the amount and types of input we receive on our work. We plan to expand our projects like Project Green Fleet, Project Stove Swap, and Project CAR, bringing more impact to those who can benefit most. Our goal is to ensure there is nowhere in Minnesota where residents experience the burden of the poor air quality.

Last year, Clean Air Minnesota turned 15, and we knew we were just getting started. In 2019, we proved that to be true, and as we look to 2020, we can’t wait to see what the future holds. We look forward to having you join us for the next two years, and beyond.