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Air Quality Panel Studies Technology That May Offer Lower-Cost Option for PM2.5 Mitigation

Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences

The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly last week delayed consideration of technology that could reduce emissions from wood heating. An ordinance sponsored by Assembly member Lance Roberts would include installation of electrostatic precipitators as part of the borough’s wood-stove changeout program. The stack-mounted devices use static electricity to remove health-damaging fine particulates from smoke.

Electrostatic precipitators remove particles from the smoke produced by combustion by attracting the particulate matter onto collection surfaces using static electricity.

Lance Roberts told Assemblymembers last week it’s a promising technology that could offer an alternative to the costly replacement of some home-heating systems that’s mandated by the borough’s Air Quality Control Program.

“This is a technology that’s shown to be wonderful,” Roberts said. “It’s in large power plants. It does an incredible job of pulling out a lot of pollutants.”

Roberts’s ordinance would authorize the borough to give residents up to $2,000 to help pay for electrostatic precipitators and install them on the stack or chimney of their solid-fuel-burning heating appliance. He says the measure would enable some area residents to avoid the high cost of replacing heating systems that would otherwise emit more PM2.5-type particulates than is presently allowed under the air-quality program – even when the borough issues alerts that require residents to halt wood-burning because of poor air quality.

“If somebody has one of these, they can get a Stage 1 waiver and burn in Stage 2, even though they wouldn’t normally be allowed to do so,” he said, “because this device is that clean.”

Roberts says the borough couldn’t use federal Environmental Protection Agency funds to compensate residents who buy electrostatic precipitators, because the EPA doesn’t include such systems on its list of approved pollution-control technologies. Local air quality expert Cathy Cahill says that’s because EPA hasn’t evaluated the technology. She said during a public hearing over the ordinance that the proposal to incorporate it into the borough’s air-quality program most likely will not be well-received by the feds.

“EPA will definitely see this as backsliding,” Cahill said. “And the question that they will be asking is how serious are we about actually improving the air quality.”

But Fairbanks resident John Christiansen said during the public hearing that the technology has been proven after years of use worldwide.

“This technology usually reduces fine-particulate emissions by 90 percent or more,” Christiansen said. “This has been shown (to be) the case all around the world. And physics works the same all the way around the world.”

Cahill is a member of the borough Air Pollution Control Commission and a former UAF chemistry professor. And she says the commission hasn’t had a chance to review the ordinance. She’s concerned it would worsen air pollution, because electrostatic precipitators installed on solid-fuel-burning heating systems must be cleaned regularly or else they’ll lose efficiency and permit more particulate-laden emissions. Cahill says she’s worked with electrostatic precipitators, and she says they’re not necessarily homeowner friendly.

“They are difficult to keep running,” she said. “It is not ‘plug and play.’ This is something that requires serious maintenance.”

Patrice Lee also is skeptical of the proposal. She’s is a longtime local air-quality advocate and a member of Citizens for Clean Air. And she says a biomass-heating systems engineer she talked with recently shares Cahill’s concerns.   

“He said that without further research on how often they need to be cleaned, he couldn’t put his faith in them.” She said. “And he felt that there was a danger to people being on their roofs, if you weren’t a professional.”

But Lee and other air-quality advocates say they’re open to exploring new technologies to solve the area’s air-quality problems. They said they’d study electrostatic precipitators and talk about their findings. So the Assembly voted unanimously to refer the ordinance to the borough Air Quality Control Commission, and require commissioners to report back within 30 days after they begin their review.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.