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Op-ed: Park City paves the way for electric city buses and cleaner air

A Park City Electric Xpress bus parked outside of the Utah State Capitol.
A Park City Electric Xpress bus parked outside of the Utah State Capitol.
Courtesy of Alan Westenskow

We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet Utah's air quality often ranks as one the worst in the U.S., and in some cases the world. The Environmental Protection Agency has reclassified much of the area along the Wasatch Front from moderate to serious nonattainment for 24-hour particulate matter 2.5. As a lifelong Utahn and father of four children, I, like many others, want clean air for my family and their future.

Half of our local air pollution stems from vehicle tailpipe emissions, which represents a major opportunity for change. Current air pollution levels pose a serious public health threat, and as our communities came together Friday for Transit Day on the Hill, we are reminded of the role clean transportation technology can play in improving Salt Lake City, Park City and other regions in our great state.

We don’t have to look far to see how zero-emission, battery-electric bus technology is demonstrating a future for clean air and communities to breath easily. Park City recently became a nationwide leader in clean transit when it implemented its fare-free Electric Xpress fleet of six zero-emission battery-electric buses, which shuttle people from Kimball Junction to Old Town. Since last June, Park City’s Electric Xpress fleet has driven over 280,000 miles and seen increased transit ridership while lowering its cost of “fuel” by nearly half compared to its existing diesel buses.

Furthermore, Park City’s electric buses use local Utah energy resources, and because the average fuel efficiency of the electric buses has averaged around 21 mpg equivalent, Park City estimates its carbon footprint is still 20 percent lower than its diesel-powered buses. Park City has already avoided the use of around 87,000 gallons of diesel — enough to fill a few swimming pools — by switching to electric buses. Park City is underway to develop a large-scale renewable facility that will be based in Utah to power its city operations. This renewable electricity will create jobs, tax revenue and lock in the clean fuel source for these buses for 20 years.

Park City is also saving money. While the upfront cost of an electric bus is more than a diesel bus today, Park City estimates it will save hundreds of thousands of dollars over the 12-year lifetime of each vehicle.

As a result of Park City’s battery-electric bus success, its city council now has a goal of only purchasing electric buses from now on, joining other cities across North America that have made similar commitments. Park City’s ambitious commitment to electrify its fleet of buses has also helped influence California, the largest vehicle market in North America, in preparing its policies to support the increased adoption of zero-emission vehicles.

This year, Utah will become a beneficiary of over $35 million from the Volkswagen Environmental Mitigation Trust as part of a settlement with Volkswagen for violations of the Clean Air Act. Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality is leading the effort to determine how this money will be used to invest in eligible vehicle technologies that will help reduce nitrogen oxides and other particulate matter that contributes to our bad air conditions. As Utah evaluates technology, it could look to Park City’s leadership and follow the direction of other states, like Colorado and Georgia, which decided battery-electric buses would have the highest impact by transporting the highest number of people with the greatest greenhouse gas emission reductions.

As cities from coast to coast grapple with increasingly poor air quality and move to adopt 100 percent zero-emission transit goals, Park City represents a proud first for Utahns.

Alan Westenskow serves as a Utah Clean Energy board member and Proterra Director of Business Development.