Editor's note: This is the second in a two-day series on Utah's battle to reduce air pollution along the Wasatch Front and key areas of the state. Read the first part, "Clearing the air: That air you're breathing may be slowly killing you.
SALT LAKE CITY — Like many men out there, Salt Lake resident Michael Mielke is so in love with his car he gave it name.
"I am in love with Lela and I hate the dirty air."
Mielke puts his money where his mouth is, and his mouth – his voice – is large in the fight against air pollution in Utah, taking on industry and government officials, including Utah Gov. Gary Herbert.
"The air we breathe not just smells bad and tastes bad, it's also lethal for people and costing us billions," Mielke said, noting both health and economic studies citing the toll air pollution is taking in Utah. He bought a home at the top of 18th Avenue in Salt Lake City to escape trapped pollutants on the valley floor.
"I am above 70 to 80 percent of it; it rarely gets this high. But I try to avoid breathing it." He also tries to avoid contributing to it.
Despite his advocacy, he looks inward to solve the problem of air pollution. He proudly boasts that his all-electric Nissan Leaf has zero emissions.
Before critics rush to say he plugs into electrical power generated by burning coal — he points out that he doesn't.
Instead, he's invested in 18 solar panels that are affixed to the roof of his home nestled against the foothills high in the Avenues of Salt Lake City.
Those panels generate 3,200 watts of power and provide the electricity to charge the Leaf he bought last November.
He is nearly "off the grid" and said he wants to purchase 24 more panels to provide additional solar power for his home and to help out his neighbors.
For now, he is one of 33,627 Rocky Mountain Power customers in Utah who participates in the utility company's renewable energy Blue Sky program — or a little more than 4 percent of the Utah customer base.
Mielke is one of only a handful of Nissan Leaf owners in the state and bought the Leaf for $32,500. The federal government gave him a $7,500 rebate.
"It costs me about $400 a month, but that's everything, and this is no junk here. The acceleration is amazing because there are no gears. She's a sports car and she runs on sunshine."
Mielke is highly critical of Herbert's 10-year Energy Plan that continues to support fossil-fuel extraction, and he is one of the litigants suing Rio Tinto's Kennecott over alleged violations of the Clean Air Act.
"I am not just a lay person, but a real person who pushes hard for getting our air clean."
He also knows that many people's first reaction to his clean air lifestyle will be one that is critical — it's easy for a well-heeled east-bench health care auditor to afford more than two dozen solar panels and an all-electric vehicle that costs $30,000-plus.
"People say, 'Well, you have the money to do this,' but they are only thinking in costs to themselves," he said. "They are internalizing the costs. But the costs of pollution are external; it costs us our health and billions in health care costs. The majority of the crud in our air is from internal combustion in cars and trucks and vehicles — it is what makes the air damaging to our lungs."
Going after industry and demanding tighter emissions controls is only one part of the solution, Mielke says, and the bigger answer lies in the mirror.
"It is very difficult for us to acknowledge our own fault and complicity because then we would have to understand that we are doing it to our kids."
"The only way you are going to be able to get around the poisonous air is through mass transit, bicycles, electric vehicles and to do the best you can to run them on solar. Let's tax vehicles according to the amount of pollution they put into the air that hurts our kiddies."
Mielke concedes even some of his colleagues who are passionate about cleaning up the air fail to understand what drastic changes that he said need to take place.
"Even the good guys don't even understand how much needs to happen to address the problem. You have to go after it at the source and at scale and nothing will work if you're fiddling around the edges."
He's critical of campaigns to "drive less" via telecommuting or carpooling and promotes the gospel of change.
"Driving less is not the answer. It's about driving differently. It is a way to feel good and accomplish nothing. You think you are doing something and you can rationalize away the problem."
He doesn't fault government or its leaders, despite his advocacy.
"We elect these people despite the damage they do," he said. "It is a lot easier to scapegoat someone and say it is the Legislature or industry. That's not true. It is really us refusing to care about ourselves and our kids' breathing."
It's easier, too, to endlessly chip away at the edges of the air pollution problem because at present the state doesn't have the incentives, the mandates or the mindset, he said.
"Nobody is talking about the degree of change that is necessary," he said. "In my perspective it is not in the conversation because it is too hard to hear at this point. We have to get off oil."